A Year Ago: Immigration battle looms for hi-tech staff

Originally published Tue, 21 Sep 1998 07:57:31 GMT

Proposed legislation to increase the number of foreign high-tech workers allowed to enter the United States has been championed by technology companies, but faces opposition on Capitol Hill from a strange-bedfellows coalition of pro-labour Democrats and anti-immigration Republicans.

With the House of Representatives poised to consider the measure this week, what's at stake, according to many in the industry, is the continuation of America's technology-fuelled economic boom.

Opponents, meanwhile, fear the measure would put Americans at risk of being bumped from their full-time jobs in favour of temporary foreign workers for whom companies wouldn't have to provide expensive health benefits. "Our view is that there really is a need for more people" to fill software programming, network administration and systems analyst jobs, said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade association for hardware makers, software developers and Internet service providers.

The reasons for the labour shortfall are complex and often hotly-debated, Black and other observers say, but it's generally agreed within high-tech circles that a continued delay in filling certain jobs will mean product-release delays that could imperil the industry's growth.

"People are quibbling and arguing about how great the need is, but clearly this bill will help," Black said of the measure now before the House. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Republican Lamar Smith of Texas is similar to one passed by the Senate in May. It would increase the yearly cap on foreign high-tech workers allowed into the United States from the current 65,000 to 115,000 by the year 2001. In 2003, the yearly immigration limit would return to 65,000.

House members were to debate the bill last week, but it was pulled from the agenda Thursday, as lawmakers battled over releasing more information gathered by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in the White House sex scandal and scrambled to tackle spending bills before time runs out in the legislative session.

A vote could come this week. If lawmakers approve the Smith bill, and then convene a conference to reconcile it with the Senate version sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham the bill would become law.

Not everyone in the industry supports opening up new opportunities in the United States for foreign technology workers. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers-USA, the American arm of the international trade group for science and technology professionals, fears some of its members will find their jobs at risk if the measure is made law.

IEEE-USA contended in a recent policy statement that the bill would "undermine the long-term vitality of the nation's own scientific, engineering and technical workforce" unless measures were added to expand education and training for students and displaced U.S. workers. The group also called for stronger safeguards to ensure that companies consider U.S. job applicants before filling slots with overseas workers.

"The increase is too large and goes on for too long, and the worker safeguards are too lax to prevent harm to our high-tech work force," said John Reinert, president of the IEEE-USA. The fear, according to Reinert, is that companies might replace full-time American workers with overseas workers brought in on H1-B visas to fill temporary jobs for which certain expensive benefits wouldn't be required.

Opponents of the bill -- which include Democrat heavyweight Sen. Edward Kennedy -- want it modified to add new tools for the Department of Labour to investigate potential abuses of the H1-B visa program. As it now stands, the bill calls for companies to certify that they have not laid off American workers to replace them with foreign hires, and calls for them to prove the overseas workers are as qualified as any American applicants.

The bill also allows U.S. workers to file complaints if they are passed over for certain jobs. An amendment proposed by Kennedy that would have provided for $25,000 in fines for companies found abusing the system was later removed from the bill.

Proponents take issue with the contention that U.S. companies will save money by hiring foreign workers, and maintain that the measure pending in Congress will not endanger U.S. jobs. "I don't believe U.S. workers are being shut out by foreign workers," said Bob Degen, an immigration attorney with the Philadelphia law firm of Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel. Since it can cost companies anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 or more in legal fees and other costs to process H1-B visas for potential employees, said Degen, "these hiring decisions are not made on a whim."

Some companies also pay relocation costs for overseas workers, a cost that can be considerable when tech workers are brought over from China and India, two of the richest sources of overseas high-tech professionals, he said. "It simply doesn't make sense for companies to lay off Americans to hire foreigners, when you consider the costs involved," Degen said.

But while the IEEE-USA, the American Engineering Association and other labour organisations question the need to increase the immigration cap to 115,000 workers, some statistics show that the need for qualified workers is dire -- and likely to get worse. A study by the U.S. Department of Labour earlier this year estimated that in each of the next 10 years, 130,000 new jobs will open up in the high-tech sector. And of some 3.4 million technology-related jobs available in the U.S. this year, 346,000 are vacant, according to a study by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Proponents of the immigration increase say one problem is that universities aren't pumping out qualified graduates fast enough to fill the vacant jobs. "There's a lack of supply that can be traced partly to educational failures," said Dan Griswold, associate director of the Centre for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. "We're actually graduating less computer science students now than we did 10 years ago," he said. A study by the Cato Institute in March of this year showed that U.S. colleges are now producing 25,000 graduates in computer science each year (40 percent fewer than in the 1980s) and 20,000 electrical engineering graduates each year (a third fewer than a decade ago), Griswold said.

"Immigrants already play a vital role in America's high-technology economy. While immigrants are less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 30 percent of research and development scientists and engineers with Ph.D.s," according to the Cato study.

"More than one-third of the engineers in Silicon Valley are foreign-born," the study claims. Some of the technology industry's top names, including Intel founder Andy Grove and 3Com CEO Eric Benhamou, are foreign-born. The need has increased so rapidly -- with Internet-related economic growth helping to spawn a plethora of new startup companies, and Year 2000-related computer problems looming -- that universities have simply been overwhelmed, said the CCIA's Black. "It's grown beyond the easy ability of our schools to provide enough qualified people," Black said.

While many experts agree that education is vital to filling the empty jobs, one software programmer who emigrated to the U.S. said that employers are more interested in applicants with real-world job experience than degrees. "Everybody's looking for someone with experience. The degree isn't as much of an issue," said Phil Hampson, a British-born programmer who works for BankBoston on a contract basis. While the supply of work has been steady during his several years in the United States, there were bureaucratic hoops to jump through before he was eligible for the jobs, Hampson said.

The need for qualified workers is just as dire on the other side of the Atlantic, according to one high-tech professional who divides his time between Ireland and the United States. The dearth of trained programmers and networking experts "is seriously impeding growth" in the technology industry worldwide, said Antoin O'Lachtnain, chief technical officer for Nua Ltd., a Dublin- and New York-based Internet consultancy. "You just get people from wherever you can. It's not only a U.S. problem," O'Lachtnain said.