WASHINGTON—In the boom times of the late 1990s, U.S. corporations widely turned to foreign workers to fill highly skilled jobs, particularly in the technology field. Now, in the continuing economic downturn, foreign workers are being blamed for displacing their homegrown counterparts.
Wednesday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., will introduce a bill crafted to close loopholes in employment visa laws, which he says allow companies to hire foreign employees and outsource them to other companies.
“We must make sure that our immigration policies dont have a backlash effect on displacing American workers,” Chambliss said Tuesday. “[The bill] will end the practice of companies who are displacing American workers.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday took a look at the role of temporary work visas in the current economy. The technology industrys use of H-1B visas dropped approximately 75 percent last year, with initial H-1B visa applications falling to 26,659 in 2002 from 105,692 in 2001, according to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Security.
Despite the statistics, as unemployment rises in the United States, lawmakers are hearing from their constituents.
“I cannot tell you how many workers came up to me [in August in California] and said, Ive been replaced by somebody I trained, and theyre getting a third [the salary] of what I got,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. “Wherever I go, this program comes up and somebody tells me theyve been replaced, and they are angry.”
Intel Corp., which employs close to 80,000 workers worldwide, hires individuals through the H1-B visa program when a position requires unique or difficult-to-find skills, Patrick Duffy, human resources attorney at Intel, told lawmakers. Beginning in 2001, Intel decreased hiring overall, but it continues to hire H-1B applicants when it cannot find qualified U.S. workers, Duffy said. The company has particular difficulty hiring U.S. citizens for positions in electrical engineering design and chemical engineering, he said.
Duffy contended that the H-1B visa program does not displace U.S. workers and ultimately benefits the U.S. economy. Most of the companys H-1B visa employees studied at U.S. universities and earned masters degrees and doctorates.
“These are not temporary workers to us. The H-1B visa is just one step in making these workers U.S. workers,” Duffy said. “Hopefully theyll stay with Intel … the rest of their lives.”
Large corporations that rely on skilled foreign workers are urging Congress not to pass short-term fixes that will later cause problems when the economy recovers. In the boom times of the late 90s, Ingersoll-Rand Corp. had to take people off the payroll when the H-1B hiring cap was lowered, Elizabeth Dickson, adviser for Immigration Services at Ingersoll-Rand in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., told lawmakers Tuesday.
“When the [foreign worker hiring] cap reverts to 65,000, we are going to have a lot of problems that we experienced both in 1997 and 1998,” Dickson said. “If we have a recovering economy, what are our needs going to be long term?”
The root of the problem, according to the industry officials, is that Americans earn too few graduate degrees in the hard sciences, leaving the domestic pool of adequate engineering specializations too small. Contrary to some assertions, industry officials said they do not hire foreign workers to pay them less than they would pay Americans. Dickson told lawmakers that it is more expensive to hire foreign workers.
“We are mostly looking to hire U.S. workers. Theyre cheaper, and there are a lot less problems,” Dickson said. “In the near term we simply must have access to foreign nationals. If we want to maintain a global edge, we want to have the best and the brightest working for us in the United States.”
American engineers argue that corporate Americas use of H-1B visas exacerbates the problem of engineering unemployment. Abuse of the visa program, in particular, leaves qualified Americans out of work, according to John Steadman, president-elect of the IEEE-USA in Washington, D.C.
“If we continue down this path, the United States is making itself increasingly dependent of foreign technical expertise, both here and abroad,” Steadman told lawmakers, urging the government to support programs that encourage more students—especially minorities and women—to go into the sciences.