[The day after this article was published, Texas Instruments had 93 computer,
engineering, and information technology openins listed on their web site.]
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Updated: Sunday, Apr. 16, 2000 at 17:34 CDT
Technical difficulties: Cap on visas to foreign workers has high-tech
companies struggling to fill jobs
By Glen Fest
Coming to the United States was the best option Raj Sekhar had three years
ago when he left India.
With a bachelor's degree in electronics and communications engineering, he
could parlay his mainframe-computing skills into a U.S. career and a pay
level that didn't exist in his homeland. Like many educated Indians, he
decided that an H-1B temporary worker visa through a Texas employer was the
A lot has changed since 1997, giving Sekhar and the thousands of workers like
him more options.
"Right now, some of my friends are leaving . . . because of the good
opportunities in India," Sekhar says. "If the opportunities are there, out of
100 [Indians], maybe only five or 10 would stay here."
India's technology sector is exploding, with rising salaries and thousands of
start-up software companies luring many qualified workers back home from
their American jobs. Sekhar says he plans to head back to his home city in
five or six years, with a master's degree in e-commerce from the University
of Dallas in hand.
At the same time, Sekhar and other highly skilled foreign workers are finding
more barriers to working in the United States.
In just five months, high-tech companies nationwide have used all 115,000 of
the H-1B visas made available by Congress through the Immigration and
And with American high-tech companies desperate to hire more highly educated
workers from China, Pakistan, India and elsewhere, the cap on those visas has
become the subject of a growing legislative and cultural debate.
For the industry, hiring the world's best and brightest, regardless of
nationality and quotas, is a matter of competitive survival. For opponents of
H-1Bs, the question is whether American workers are given a fair chance to
fill those jobs, and whether a shortage truly exists.
The guest workers themselves question a costly, elaborate residency process
in which their "temporary" H-1B status appears to morph into
H-1B visa caps were created with the Immigration Act of 1990 when permanent
employment-based immigration was tripled. According to the Cato Institute, a
conservative think tank that supports raising the cap, the original 65,000
limit was based on an "erroneous" assumption that there would be a reduction
in demand for temporary workers.
But frequently cited Labor Department statistics place the number of
high-tech workers needed at U.S. companies at more than 300,000. And the
annual cap of 115,000 H-1B workers doesn't come close to filling it, industry
"Our member companies report that 30 percent of their jobs go unfilled," says
Melissa Hendrick, executive director of the American Electronics Association
Texas Council, a software firm trade group.
"High-tech companies are not going to be able to fill these jobs and put out
products and high-tech services, which is going to affect the economy."
For North Texas, which a Milken Institute study last year rated as the No. 2
high-tech market in the country behind Silicon Valley, the shortage of
qualified workers is prompting some to consider moving operations overseas.
"We need ready access to people," says Bruce Charendoff, senior vice
president of government affairs at Sabre in Fort Worth. "If the foreign labor
pool is unavailable, we have a serious problem. We may have to include
alternatives, including moving portions of our business offshore."
A study released last week by the Employment Policy Foundation reported that
about one-third of Fortune 500 companies would move jobs outside the country
if they faced a shortage of H-1B workers. On average, the study said,
companies would hire an additional 13 workers if the cap did not exist.
Many studies cited by human resource professionals and industry sources say
an additional 10-15 jobs are usually created as a result of one H-1B position
By allowing thousands of vacancies to accrue, there is a trickle-down loss of
well-paying support jobs that would go to U.S. workers, New York immigration
attorney Ron Storette says.
"I'm working with literally dozens of dot-coms, and they might be delayed
from starting up this year because of the freeze," says Storette, who is a
member of the New York State Bar Association's committee on immigration and
When companies begin sponsoring workers again this full, a multitude of
e-commerce companies "will be eating up these H-1B visas like there's no
Sabre, which sponsors about 250 H-1B workers annually, could easily double
that if the cap was lifted, Charendoff says. The company has a 10-person
staff devoted to recruiting and retaining specialty skilled workers.
Motorola, with 800 H-1B workers nationwide, wants to add at least 200 next
year, company officials say.
Belkis Muldoon, director of global immigration services for Motorola, says
the company not only has to contend with foreign competitors for the world's
best engineers, but also has to mediate internal battles with managers
fighting to get their H-1B applications to the top of the list.
Texas Instruments -- which already employs 700-800 H-1B workers, 70 percent
of them in North Texas -- has 1,300 computer, engineering and information
technology vacancies companywide.
Roger Coker, U.S. staffing and sourcing director for the company, says nearly
all of those jobs require advanced degrees and experience to lead projects
and product development.
Faced with those numbers, companies such as Sabre, Texas Instruments and
Motorola are clamoring for changes in how -- and how many -- highly skilled
workers are brought into the country.
For the third consecutive year, the INS was forced to halt the H-1B
application process in midyear after hitting the cap. Without congressional
action, immigration experts say, next year's cap of 107,500 could be reached
by January -- three months into fiscal year 2001.
President Clinton and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan have voiced
support for raising the cap. Two bills that are gaining support among
high-tech companies would raise the cap, as well as exempt or establish
"set-aside" visas for immigrant workers with master's degrees or Ph.Ds.
U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and others introduced
the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act in February, which would
increase H-1Bs to 195,000 for this year and the next two years. U.S. Reps.
David Dreier, R-Calif., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., have proposed a House bill
raising the ceiling to 200,000 for the next three years.
The Dreier-Lofgren legislation would also double the H-1B visa fee to fund
job training and education programs encouraging U.S. students to pursue
science and math studies.
There has seen a 46 percent decline in engineering, science and math degrees
among American college graduates since 1987.
Even U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, D-Texas, chairman of a House subcommittee on
immigration and an avowed H-1B opponent, introduced a bill that would
eliminate the cap.
But proponents of raising the cap say Smith's bill contains poison pills to
ensure its failure: It would require the Labor Department to post the name
and personal information of each H-1B visa holder on the Internet and
companies to pay these workers a mimimun salary of $40,000 a year.
Critics of H-1B visas, including Smith, say the technology industry is
overstating the worker shortage. When introducing his new no-cap bill, Smith
reiterated that there is "no objective, credible study that documents a
shortage of American high-tech workers."
Attorneys and human resources professionals involved in H-1B applications say
proof of the shortage comes from the fact that companies hire alien workers
A company's legal costs and the fees associated with sponsoring a foreign
worker run $4,000 to $5,000, if not more, Irving attorney D. Jackson Chaney
says. Additionally, they must prove to the Labor Department that no qualified
American candidate was available and that the foreign worker will be paid a
prevailing industry wage.
"No company would willingly go through the lengthy process it takes to
certify an H-1B," Chaney says. "There's legal exposure because they're filing
affidavits saying they can't find qualified American workers. And even if you
could hire a foreign electrical engineer for $4,000 or $5,000 less than an
American . . . then you're not even breaking even."
But the certified wage isn't always in line with market reality, says Ed
Sills, a Texas-based spokesman for the AFL-CIO. He says outplaced American
senior-level engineers could command higher paychecks, but they are shut out
by companies that classify a job so narrowly that only a foreign candidate
can meet the qualifications.
Sills calls the H-1B process exploitative, because foreign workers cannot
change jobs or receive pay increases for several years without jeopardizing
their green card application status.
"We're not trying to say there's anything wrong with immigration laws,
because obviously our history is built on immigrants," Sills says. "Whether
you want to call somebody a new economy company or an old economy company,
companies have always hired people who do not have the entire skill sets for
the job, but we put them in an apprentice situation in order to get them up
to speed. Why should it be any different in the high-tech industry?"
At Sabre, about 160 to 180 people are hired each month, the company says.
Twenty to 30 of those normally would be H-1Bs, but that won't be the case for
the next six months.
"Our near-term problem is work needs to be done today, and we can't hire the
people we need today because of an artificial cap that's been put into place
without regard to the demand for the type of work that Sabre does,"
Charendoff says. "Long-term, we recognize that the solution is through
education and training" of American workers.
"It's not a problem that's going to get solved today, tomorrow or even this
year," he says. "But it is one Sabre is committed to working on with schools
and the government."
H-1B visa holders fearful they'll be forced from U.S. by backlog
Cap limits on H-1B temporary work visas have shut thousands of workers out of
the country until October. But some lucky enough to have sponsorships and
jobs here are finding little security in their good fortune.
According to a nonprofit lobbying organization for immigrant workers,
anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 H-1B visa holders face deportation in the next
two years. Most are Chinese and Indian workers whose H-1B six-year limits may
expire while their permanent residency hopes wither in a cavernous backlog at
state and federal agencies.
"Most of us are up within the next 18 months," Rakesh Popat, an Indian
national living in Dallas, says of himself and hundreds of other North Texas
H-1B workers belonging to the 2-year-old Immigrants Support Network.
The root of the problem, which the group's leaders say is particularly acute
in Texas, is a lengthy job certification process in which companies must
prove that no qualified American job candidate exists for an H-1B worker's
Labor certification is handled through a two-track system with the Texas
Workforce Commission, which acts only as a local agent for the federally
The traditional certification program requires companies to make additional
recruitment efforts for American candidates before giving final approval of
an H-1B worker's status. A newer fast-track system, called "Reduction in
Recruitment," does not require follow- up job postings.
Many applicants whose employers did not pre- certify their position have been
waiting two years and fear they will miss deadlines to formally apply for
green cards with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"Well, if I do not get my green card . . . I'll have to pack my bags," says
Anupam Nilabh, 33, a Dallas senior systems consultant and Flower Mound
resident with two years left on his H-1B. "I have a home, so presumably I'll
have to sell off everything and get out of the U.S. for a minimum period of
one year -- which means that, obviously, should that happen, I'm not coming
Some temporary workers allege that the Texas Workforce Commission is ignoring
their applications in order to clear a backlog of fast-track certifications
submitted since January 1998.
Not true, a commission spokesman says.
"They're continuing to work on both of those," Larry Jones says.
The backlog of Reduction in Recruitment applications is 1,802, while pending
"normal" applications total 4,325. Jones says the January 1998 introduction
of Reduction in Recruitment brought with it a crunch of applicants,
reportedly 30,000, equal to the number for all of 1997. Compounding the
problem were severe funding cuts that reduced the commission's certification
staff from 41 to 18.
The immigrant support organization says more than 150,000 Indians have come
to the United States on H-1Bs in the past five years, but the total backlog
of green card applicants to the INS has reached 300,000. Under current
immigration rules, only 9,800 Indians a year will be granted green cards.
"My wife and I pay our taxes, we contribute to Social Security and Medicare,"
Nilabh says. "We try to be good citizens. But, goodness gracious, it's been
such a hell."
Glen Fest, (817) 685-3808
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