[According to the DoL on May 25th, 2000, the average salary for a computer programmer on
an H-1B visa was 47,000, not 53,000 as stated in this article. Harris Miller continues to
be a fountain of disinformation claiming that CS enrollments are down.]
VISAS FOR HIGH-TECH FOREIGN WORKERS DEBATED
CRITICS SAY PLOYS USED TO PAY LESS FOR SKILLED HELP
By Karen Brandon
Tribune Staff Writer
May 28, 2000
SAN DIEGO -- In the debate over how many foreigners should be allowed to
work in high-tech jobs in the U.S., the experiences of Martha Dennis and
Jose Ramos serve as bookends.
In her former job as a vice president of engineering for a San Diego
telecommunications company, Dennis came to regard the experience of
trying to hire engineers as "a Kafka-esque nightmare."
Faced with ever fewer applicants of American birth, and the prospect of
seeking immigrants by negotiating with the government's bureaucracy, she
wondered, "Why do we make it so difficult to integrate these very
high-value individuals in our country?"
At the same time, Jose Ramos wondered how it could be possible that
someone with a doctorate in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech
University and eight years of experience, would need three years of
intense searching to find a decent job.
He depleted his savings, occasionally deleting the PhD from his resume
so as not to appear overqualified, and ultimately watched foreigners win
the positions he had sought.
"I think the problem is that for the price of one U.S. citizen, they
can bring in two engineers," said Ramos, 43, an associate professor at
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
These experiences help illustrate the political debate
once again before Congress, over the effect of allowing more foreign
workers to gain a temporary foothold, and a chance at a permanent place,
in the nation's growing Information Age economy.
Advocates say that admitting more highly skilled foreign workers will
bring the best and the brightest workers to America, rather than to
other nations such as Germany, South Africa and Malaysia that have
recently announced plans to recruit them. Opponents say it will
contribute to a "race to the bottom," with immigrants undercutting
American-born workers' wages and career prospects.
As the debate unfolds in Congress--focusing not on
whether to allow in more temporary high-skilled workers from abroad, but
how many and under what conditions--researchers suggest that both
disparate visions of the effect of high-skilled foreign workers may be
"What you have is not an either-or situation," said Robert Bach,
executive associate commissioner for policy, planning and programs at
the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "You have both. You
have a demand for the best and brightest up front and a race to the
bottom over time."
Congress will consider how much to expand the sought-after H-1B visa, a
three-year work visa, renewable for a maximum of six years, provided for
highly skilled workers, about two-thirds of them destined for
information technology positions.
A maximum of 115,000 such visas are issued annually, but in each of the
last four years, the cap has been reached long before year's end.As a
result, under various competing versions being offered in Congress, the
number of such visas would be expanded to anywhere from 200,000 annually
to an unlimited number. The various provisions being considered also set
minimum wages for visa holders and require companies recruiting them to
pay fees dedicated toward education and retraining of American workers.
The high-tech industry estimates that some 300,000 to 800,000
information technology jobs go unfilled because qualified workers can't
The Information Technology Association of America, a trade association,
predicts that its businesses will create 1.6 million jobs this year, an
increase of 16 percent, at a time when workers are already in short
But the industry's view of the labor shortage has skeptics.
"What high-tech employers really want is access to a relatively
inexhaustible supply of labor having the appropriate skill sets, willing
to work long and hard hours, at `reasonable wages' and conducting
themselves in a relatively docile manner--that is not fomenting too many
activities of a pro-sort of union nature," said Thomas Espenshade, a
Princeton University sociologist who has studied the trend. "If these
conditions are not met, then there is an alleged worker shortage."
Espenshade said his research showsthat over nearly the last three
decades, wages for workers in science and engineering fields have
declined 10 percent in real terms.
Espenshade conceded that high-technology workers are receiving forms of
compensation, such as stock options, that don't surface in an analysis
of wages. But he added, "I have the feeling that when industry says that
there's a labor shortage, what they really mean is that their demand for
labor is essentially insatiable at the wage that they would like to
Peter Larrabee, a San Diego immigration attorney, said he found it
impossible to believe that employers would prefer to recruit foreigners.
"If you had an American to fill the job, why would you wait four months
to fill the job, face higher relocation costs, lots of paperwork, and
then have to go on to deal with the immigration headaches?" he said.
Some suggest the answer is money.
Alexandre Menezes, a Florida mathematician fluent in three languages
with 20 years of experience in computer technologies, lost his job a
year and a half ago when his office was closed in a corporate merger.
Last month, he was offered a job for $60,000.
"I know that $60K is a lot of money for a lot of folks out
there," he said. However, in 1991, his salary was $85,000, with bonuses
boosting his pay to an average of $100,000 a year.
When Menezes pointed out the discrepency, the recruiter replied, "You
are lucky that we are offering you $60K yearly, since we have the option
of getting somebody easily via H-1B visa for half that amount."
Menezes was so offended that he chose to continue looking rather than
accept the offer. But he said he understood the recruiter's stance.
"He is right," Menezes said, "because the law of the land backs him
Immigration officials have begun uncovering smuggling rings bringing in
employees under the guise of H-1B workers--some of them without proper
training and others without the jobs promised. Many of the smugglers
make money from commissions taken out of the immigrants' paychecks,
For instance, late last year, immigration officials convicted Deep Sai
Consulting Inc. of Lawrenceville, Ga., of violations in what it
classifies as a "body shop" case.
The company had been applying for and receiving H-1B visas for hundreds
of Indian immigrants, ostensibly for computer jobs. Many of them, while
well-educated, did not have computer-related training, and those who
were qualified to work in the field did not find the jobs promised to
them when they paid the company up to $4,000 to bring them to the U.S.,
immigration officials said.
"We consider this white-collar alien smuggling," said Larry Hines, INS
investigations section chief in Atlanta. "Instead of coming across the
border in a U-Haul, they were flying over."
Holders of H-1B visas in computer fields earn a median salary of $53,000
a year, 8 percent below that of U.S. computer engineers with less than
10 years experience.
Recently arrived high-tech workers are three times as likely to be
"contingent workers," employed by subcontractors who pay lower wages and
do not give employees benefits, said B. Lindsay Lowell, director of
research at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of
Two-thirds of those who arrive with such visas want to stay and become
permanent residents or citizens, he said. Lowell and others have argued
that it is irresponsible to bring in more of these highly skilled
temporary workers, with an implicit promise of permanent immigration
status that can't be met.
"Growing backlogs of H-1Bs in the queue for permanent admissions are one
sure outcome, as are growing numbers of H-1Bs who had thought they could
stay but are unable legally to do so," Lowell observed.
The U.S. has quotas by country for the number of permanent work visas it
issues, and a majority of the holders of the temporary visas issued to
highly skilled workers are from Asian nations.
"The current system [for granting permanent work visas] is already
strained beyond its capacity," Lowell said. And if the nation admits
more H-1B visa holders, he predicted, "the system ... will make one more
promise to immigrants that it cannot keep."
Some industry leaders have admitted that they will need to do more
within the nation's own borders to recruit and train the talent they
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of
America, has argued that his industry needs to think less like the
National Football League and more like professional baseball.
"The NFL doesn't have a minor league. Instead, college football serves
as its training ground," he said. "At its inception, the information
technology industry could rely upon colleges and universities to train
"But now, the IT industry and others who employ IT workers need to be
more like Major League Baseball, which has a very heavy investment in
the training system through the minor leagues."
The number of students pursuing science and engineering degrees is again
on the rise since reaching its nadir in 1994, he said. But a growing
percentage of those students, particularly those pursuing graduate
degrees, are foreigners, who need master's degrees or doctorates as an
entryway into the U.S. workforce.
"You can't control technology. It has a life of its own, and that's one
of the lessons of history," said John Quinn, an immigration attorney in
San Diego. Immigration laws are unlikely to protect U.S. workers from
competition, he said, adding, "You will wind up competing with the
Indian programmer whether he's there or he's here."