Critics: High-Tech Visas Cheat U.S. Workers

Some American high-tech workers dismiss complaints that immigration and labor laws make it hard for foreign workers to come to the United States for specialized jobs. But critics say Americans who want those jobs are being unfairly supplanted.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Here's an argument that's become familiar. It goes something like this: immigrants take jobs away from Americans. Plenty of Americans are willing to do those jobs, but the influx of foreign workers depresses wages and distorts the economy. That's what critics say about large-scale illegal immigration. But many make the same argument against legal foreign workers, especially in the fields of computers and engineering. And they complain their views aren't being heard in the debate over immigration reform.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In years past, when Congress has added visas for high-skilled foreign workers, there have been bitter, public debates. But this time, hardly a word, even though the proposal now in the Senate includes substantial increases. It doubles the number of temporary H1B visas for hightech workers. It would make it easier for foreigners studying in the U.S. to stay and look for a job. And it would more than double the number of permanent employment-based visas issued every year.

Jeff Landy of the Information Technology Association thinks there's simply wider acceptance now that the hightech industry needs these workers.

JEFF LANDY: There is recognition that the majority of students in our graduate level math, science and engineering programs are actually foreign nationals and we have two choices. We can either facilitate their stay in the country so they can work for U.S. companies, innovate and create new jobs, or watch them go back to their home countries and innovate for our competition.

LUDDEN: Norm Matloff of the University of California at Davis cites a different reason for the lack of debate. He thinks the hightech industry wanted these increases buried in a bill that's largely about the hot button topic of illegal immigration. Matloff teaches computer science, and says there's deep public anger over foreign hightech workers' impact on Americans. He believes the proposed increases would hurt thousands more.

NORM MATLOFF: What we have here is an internal brain drain. We have our best and brightest people, whose talents are being wasted. There are many American engineers and programmers who are not just unemployed, but a better view is underemployed, meaning that they used to be an engineer and now they're selling insurance.

LUDDEN: It's not illegal to replace an American with a temporary foreign worker. When it comes to issuing permanent visas, though, a company must first recruit Americans and then prove to the Department of Labor that it can't find any who qualify. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies alleges the system can be finagled.

MARK KRIKORIAN: The attorneys have gotten very good at crafting ads that apply to no one but the person their client wants to hire and then place them in papers that almost no one will ever see anyway.

LUDDEN: Companies are also required to pay foreign workers prevailing wages, but software consultant John Miano says when he reviewed Department of Labor paperwork on this from last year, he found more than half the foreign workers assigned to the bottom skill level and lowest wage bracket.

JOHN MIANO: So when employers want an H1-B increase, they tell the public that these are highly skilled workers. When employers are calculating the prevailing wage for these workers, they suddenly become low skilled workers.

LUDDEN: Jeff Landy of the Information Technology Association denies foreign workers are cheaper once you take into account what it costs to recruit them.

Barry Chiswick of the University of Illinois at Chicago says hightech foreign workers can depress wages in some industries. But he also says they raise the nation's productivity, raise the earnings of lower skilled workers and pay more in taxes than they use in services.

BARRY CHISWICK: Nobody likes having more competition, but I think we have to take a broader view in terms of what is beneficial for the American economy.

LUDDEN: Unlike the Senate bill, legislation in the U.S. House does not include any increases in legal immigration. If the measures make it into an eventual compromise bill software consultant John Miano would be disappointed, but not surprised. He says hightech companies like Microsoft have big time lobbyists and make big campaign contributions. All we have, he says, are people who travel to D.C. on their own time and knock on doors.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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