Experts Debate H-1B Visas, Foreign Worker Issues

By Donald Sears  |  Posted 2009-04-08 Print this article Print

Props to Brian Watson at CIO Insight. You know when the New York Times pubs a piece entitled, "Do We Need Foreign Technology Workers?" things are bubbling to the surface.

The article, which is part of a larger series on technology and immigration issues, is about much more than the controversial H-1B program. Think overall immigration and green card policies, and the influence on academics, research, patents and U.S. labor. And yet, H-1Bs are certainly on the mind of all the experts who contributed to the piece.

Let's take a closer look at what experts have to say specifically about the H-1B program in the article. I think you'll notice the degree to which H-1Bs are on the minds of researchers, lawyers, academics and entrepreneurs.

An expert from Duke and Harvard, Vivek Wadhwa, said the biggest problem he is seeing is that policies leading to significant decrease in permanent residence visas cause the best talent not to want to stay in the United States, and America will see a decline in innovation as top talent is leaving. So, India and China will have the edge in technology.

Citing research he participated in that shows the impact in economic terms of immigrants in technology, Wadhwa calls U.S. immigration policies "shortsighted." H-1B visa rules are inflexible, thwart job growth and cause what he calls "immigration limbo." It's limbo because H-1Bs trying to get permanent residence will lose their spots in the permanent line if they get promoted or take a better-paying job; oh, and spouses can't work, have a Social Security number or drive.

From the article:

Our survey of 1,203 returnees to India and China revealed that they were doing better back home. Returnees moved up the organization chart and found better professional opportunities. They enjoy being close to parents and friends. They are making less money but enjoy a better quality of life. The majority want to start a company and think that their home countries are more fertile.

We also surveyed 1,224 foreign students in the U.S. and learned that they were thinking much like the returnees. Only 6 percent of Indian, 10 percent of Chinese, and 15 percent of European students want to stay permanently. (In the past, most Indian and Chinese Ph.D.s in science and engineering ended up making the U.S. their home.)

This is even most troubling when you consider that 47 percent of all U.S. science and engineering workers with doctorates are immigrants as were 67 percent of the additions to the U.S. science and engineering work force between 1995 to 2006. And roughly 60 percent of engineering Ph.D. students and 40 percent of master's students are foreign nationals.

So, the caramelized sugar atop the creme brulee is leaving, but what about the folks in H-1B visa programs? Are they really top talent?

Another expert, attorney and programmer John Miano, who founded the advocacy group the Programmers Guild, in the article poked serious holes in the notion and the mythology about what constitutes a "highly skilled" worker.

The fact is, our immigration policy is very welcoming to highly skilled workers, and has been for decades. But this aspect of the immigration system tends to get little attention. Instead, much of the debate in this area has been driven by a dumbing down of what "highly skilled" means. When the annual quotas on H-1B visas are exhausted, one often hears lobbyists arguing that the world's best and brightest are being shut out.

But for the most part the people who seek H-1B visas -- and may be barred by the quotas -- are not extremely highly skilled workers. A college degree from a correspondence school can qualify someone for an H-1B visa. Employers making skill-based prevailing wage claims for H-1B computer workers classify most as being at the lowest skill level. The reported wages for the majority of H-1B computer workers is in the bottom 25th percentile of U.S. wages. In short, H-1B is a cheap labor program being marketed as a program for the highly-skilled.

Hence, my post yesterday on TechAmerica, an organization whose claims smell rotten of H-1B visa promotion at a time when a profitable IBM has North American layoffs, but doesn't want to tell anyone. |

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