Immigration debate turns to H-1B visas

At congressional hearing, tech industry shows uncertainty over skilled guest worker program.

While hysteria over immigration is mostly centered on the flow of illegals over the Mexican border, Congressional interest turned to the H-1B guest worker visa program yesterday. The Senate this week passed a bill raising the cap from 65,000 to 115,000 guest workers. Yesterday, the anti-immigration House addressed the issue, the Washington Post reports.

Mostly used by high-tech and scientific companies to bring skilled computer workers from China and India to the US, H-1B was variously depicted as too much or too little at House hearings.

Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit research group, spoke in favor of raising the cap. Still, he said in an interview, the H-1B visa is far from ideal. "What you want to have is a system where people can get hired directly on green cards in 30 to 60 days," he said.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA says H-1B salaries are lower. "Those who are here on H-1B visas are being worked as indentured servants. They are being paid $13,000 less in the engineering and science worlds," said Ralph W. Wyndrum Jr., president of the advocacy group for technical professionals, which favors green-card-based immigration, but only for exceptional candidates.

Wyndrum said the current system allows foreign skilled workers to "take jobs away from equally good American engineers and scientists." He based his statements about salary disparities on a December report by John Miano, a software engineer, who favors tighter immigration controls. Miano spoke at the House hearing and cited figures from the Occupational Employment Statistics program that show U.S. computer programmers earn an average $65,000 a year, compared with $52,000 for H-1B programmers.

The cynical would say that's why high-tech companies favor the program. In defending the program, employers are basically saying that US workers aren't necessarily the best in the world. That might be hard for some US representatives to hear, but shouldn't that simply underscore the need to improve US math, science and computer education?

Those who recruit and hire retort that a global economy mandates finding the best employees in the world, not just the United States. And because green-card caps are allocated equally among countries (India and China are backlogged, for example), the H-1B becomes the easiest way to hire foreigners.

It is not always easy. Last year, Razorsight Corp., a technology company with offices in Fairfax and Bangalore, India, tried to sponsor more H-1B visas -- but they already were exhausted for the year. Currently, the company has 12 H-1B workers on a U.S. staff of 100, earning $80,000 to $120,000 a year.

Charlie Thomas, Razorsight's chief executive, said the cap should be based on market demand. "It's absolutely essential for us to have access to a global talent," he said. "If your product isn't the best it can be with the best cost structure and development, then someone else will do it. And that someone else may not be a U.S.-based company."

Ultimately, growth in India and China may undercut the notion that everyone wants to come to America.

Sameer Chandra, 30, who lives in Fairfax and works as a systems analyst on an H-1B visa, said he is concerned that Congress might make it easier for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally to get a green card than people like him. "What is the point of staying here legally?" he said.

His Houston-based company has sponsored his green card, and Chandra said he hopes it is processed quickly. If it is not, he said, he will return to India. "There's a lot of opportunities there in my country."

 

 

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