POLICY | MATTERS
Workers Part of
If Congress takes up immigration legislation before the end of next
year—which President Obama and congressional leaders have vowed
to do—lawmakers will consider competing proposals for changing the
way U.S. employers hire workers from overseas.
There’s no disputing that foreign- born individuals play an important
role in American science, but high-tech
companies, researchers and legislators
disagree about how many legal high-tech workers should be employed in the
Foreign students earn a majority of
the doctorates awarded by U.S. universities in mathematics, computer sciences
and engineering. A quarter of all U.S.
scientists and engineers were born overseas, as were 40 percent of those with
PhDs. Immigrants helped to found Intel,
eBay, Yahoo and Google.
At the heart of the current debate is
the H-1B visa, which U.S. employers
obtain so they can import 65,000 skilled
workers annually—plus an additional
20,000 with advanced degrees—for
three-year terms that can be renewed.
In recent years, before the current recession, the visa cap was met almost as
soon as applications were accepted, and
high-tech employers want the cap raised.
Advocates for U.S. high-tech workers want a lower cap, or at least tighter
restrictions on who qualifies.
“The United States will find it far
more difficult to maintain its competitive
edge over the next 50 years if it excludes
those who are able and willing to help us
compete,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates
said during one of his many calls on Congress to allow more foreign-born workers.
“These people are going to be hired. It’s
just a matter of (in) what country.”
Canada places no limit on skilled
foreign workers, according to Canadian
immigration lawyer David Cohen. That
factored into Microsoft’s decision in
2007 to build its research-and-devel-opment facility in Vancouver, just 140
miles from its Seattle-area headquarters.
Canada also makes it easier for foreign
workers to obtain permanent residence or
citizenship, Cohen said.
“We were having trouble getting visas
for the best and the brightest to come to
Seattle,” Microsoft Chief Executive Steve
Ballmer said. “It’s a bit goofy because, for
every person we hire to be an engineer,
there’s probably another four or five
people who we employ at Microsoft.”
Computer Science Professor Norman
Matloff of the University of California
at Davis—a leading H-1B critic who
opposes expanding the program—
dis-misses such comments as scare tactics.
“If they could shift these jobs off
shore, they would, because it’s cheaper,”
Matloff said. However, “there are lots of
jobs you simply cannot take off shore.”
Thus, Matloff believes that the true reason why high-tech companies want the
cap raised is that H-1B workers work
for lower pay than their American-born
But not everyone views that as a
bad thing. For example, former Federal
Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan
maintains that reduced earnings can
actually help the American economy.
The current quota for foreign workers is “far too small to meet the need,”
Greenspan told the Senate Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration, Border
Security and Citizenship. Restricting
foreign workers creates a privileged elite
whose incomes are supported at noncompetitively high levels, he said. “Greatly
expanding our quotas for the highly
skilled would lower wage premiums of
skilled over lesser skilled,” providing