Langberg: Tech visas come with obligation for valley leaders

By Mike Langberg
Via Mercury News

Silicon Valley’s lobbyists in Washington are reviving a touchy topic
that’s been largely dormant since the tech bubble burst in 2001:
whether we need to continue importing thousands of foreign engineers
and other skilled professionals on temporary H-1B visas.

Many U.S. engineers believe the H-1B program is nothing more than a
back door for greedy corporate bosses to get low-cost workers who can
be quickly sent home if they complain.

Employers, on the other hand, say they have lots of jobs they can’t
fill, and argue that U.S. tech companies will lose ground to foreign
competition without H-1B talent or will be forced to move even more
operations overseas.

Whatever the truth about H-1Bs, Silicon Valley companies need to do more to resolve the issues surrounding these visas.

The dispute, meanwhile, is likely to land in the lap of Congress.

Rep. John Shadegg, a Republican from Arizona, is planning to
introduce a bill this week or next that would nearly double the number
of H-1B visas granted every year to 115,000 from 65,000 — a key goal
of lobbying groups including TechNet and AeA, formerly the American
Electronics Association.

This would complement a similar bill introduced in the Senate last month by Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.

Also in D.C., the H-1B process is getting new scrutiny. The
Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress,
released a report last week criticizing federal agencies for lax
enforcement of H-1B rules.

The IEEE-USA, a group representing engineers, seized on the GAO report as further evidence the H-1B program is a failure.

AeA, meanwhile, added fuel to the H-1B fire last week by sending
every member of Congress a position paper arguing that criticisms of
the H-1B program are “myths,” three of which are worthy of debate.

The first AeA myth is that foreign nationals steal American jobs.

“High-tech companies are increasingly seeking skilled labor to feed
a growing industry and cannot find it,” the position paper says.
“Visit the website of many American technology companies and you will
find thousands of unfilled U.S.-based positions. Foreign nationals are
critical for filling this void.”

Norman S. Matloff, a professor of computer science at UC-Davis and a
longtime H-1B critic, counters that claims of low unemployment among
engineers don’t count underemployment.

For example, many Silicon Valley professionals were driven out of
the tech industry during the downturn from 2001 to 2004. A former
software engineer now working as a teacher or a real estate agent
doesn’t count in the statistics, and may be making significantly less
money.

Current engineering vacancies could reflect employers unwilling to
hire older engineers, even if they’ve retrained themselves, when the
companies can hold out for the alternative of cheaper H-1B labor.

The AFL-CIO, in a February position paper, argued that H-1Bs and
other loopholes allow employers “to turn permanent jobs into temporary
jobs. . . . As a result, working conditions for all professional
workers have suffered: pressures caused by employer exploitation of
professional guest workers coupled with increases in outsourcing
continue to have a chilling effect on any real wage increases for
professionals, even those not directly or immediately impacted.”

AeA’s second myth is that foreign nationals are paid less than U.S. workers.

“The vast majority of companies (hiring H-1B workers) play by the
rules, pay market wages and do not wish to see the integrity of the
program called into question by a minority of infractors,” the
position paper says.

AeA cites several supporting studies, although Matloff and other
critics cite competing studies and even interpret the same studies in
different ways.

It’s impossible to settle the question definitively, in part because
immigration laws don’t require H-1B employers to disclose sufficient
data.

AeA’s third myth is that H-1B employers are bound to their U.S.
employers “and are therefore little more than indentured servants.”

Legally, H-1B visa holders are free to take other jobs in the United
States, and some do. But any H-1B hoping for a “green card,” the
much-sought-after ticket to permanent residence, must restart the
application process if they switch employers. Given the glacial pace of
green-card approvals, this can create a de facto obligation to stay put.

Last week’s report by the GAO said the U.S. Department of Labor
isn’t doing enough to verify even the minimal protections built into
the current H-1B law.

From January 2002 through September 2005, the GAO reported, the
Labor Department approved 99.5 percent of the 960,563 applications it
received for H-1Bs — a suspiciously high number.

“We do not know the true magnitude of the error rate in the certification process,” the GAO report concluded.

Ralph W. Wyndrum Jr., president of the IEEE-USA, issued a statement in response to the GAO’s findings:

“Implementation of the H-1B program fails every test of the
principles its advocates have asserted. Employers can and do give
preference to H-1Bs over U.S. workers. Employers who choose to do so
can easily manipulate the system to pay below-market wages.”

Silicon Valley’s tech leaders have a broader immigration agenda with
some laudable objectives, such as making it easier for bright foreign
students to study at U.S. universities and for those students to remain
when they graduate.

To keep that agenda on track, valley companies should balance their
demand for H-1Bs with a commitment to making the program more
transparent. They should also support clearly visible programs to
retain and retrain their existing employees, so we can accept at face
value their requests for more temporary foreign workers.

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