RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Immigration reform looks like it will be passed in the Senate, likely by the end of the week. Among other things, the bill will allow companies to import a lot more skilled workers.
The tech industry has lobbied hard for this, despite concerns that it will mean extra competition for American workers. To that fear, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin insists the bill has American workers covered.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN: Employers will be given a chance to hire a temporary foreign worker when truly needed. But first, they'll be required to recruit Americans. No exceptions, no excuses.
MONTAGNE: Still, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, making companies recruit Americans isn't the same as making them hire them.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If you talk to disgruntled tech workers much, sooner or later they're going to send you this video.
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LAWRENCE LEBOWITZ: And our goal is, clearly, not to find a qualified and interested U.S. worker.
KASTE: That's an immigration lawyer from Pittsburgh in what looks like a seminar for clients, a few years ago. In this video, he's telling clients what to do when they want to sponsor one of their foreign workers for a permanent visa - a green card.
The problem is the government: it makes them prove that they looked for American workers first. So they have to advertise the job, but he tells them they don't have to advertise it too conspicuously.
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LEBOWITZ: Certainly, we are not going to try to find the place where the applicants are going to be the most numerous. We're going to find a place where again, we're complying with the law and hoping - and likely - not to find qualified and interested worker applicants.
KASTE: Immigration law firms do this all the time - they show employers how to recruit Americans without actually having to hire them. This lawyer didn't want to talk to NPR, maybe because the anti-visa activists have been sending this video around for years. It's Exhibit A in their argument that the recruiting rules are a sham.
And in techy parts of the country, this kind of faux recruiting is common knowledge.
ORION HUGHES: A lot of us are aware of that ruse.
KASTE: A software tester named Orion Hughes is sitting in a coffee shop in Redmond, Washington. He says people in his industry quickly learn not to waste their time on certain job listings - especially the listings with overly specific requirements - say, X number of years in, quote, the job offered. That often means that they just want to make permanent a temporary foreign worker who's already in the job. And if you're stubborn enough to apply anyway, he says, that interview is going to be awkward.
HUGHES: If you want to put yourself in that manager's shoes, it's an uncomfortable situation for them. There will be kind of a sour facial expression, and they'll go from one question to the next. They are finding some reason to exclude you.
KASTE: Employers usually go through these motions only when they're sponsoring a foreigner for a permanent visa. But now the Senate immigration bill would extend somewhat similar requirements to temp workers - the foreigners on the so-called H-1B visas that have become so common and so controversial in the lower-end tech jobs.
The bill would have the employers post those jobs online first, and there'd be more recruiting rules for companies that use H-1Bs a lot. It sounds good - but it's a move that seems to ignore all the ill will that's been generated over the years by the insincere recruiting.
BRUCE MORRISON: No one is ever hired.
KASTE: Bruce Morrison is a former congressman who helped to design the current work visa system; now he's an immigration lawyer and a lobbyist. He says the recruiting rule in the green card system came with a fundamental flaw.
MORRISON: Which is, it doesn't start until you've already picked the person you want. The decision whether to hire an American already happened - and you didn't.
KASTE: He's one of many experts who've given up on these recruiting rules. He says the better fix would be for the government just to charge employers a heftier fee.
MORRISON: Create the economic circumstance where it costs you a lot more to hire a foreigner, and you'll only do it if you can't find an American who's suitable.
KASTE: The Senate bill takes some small steps in this direction, but Morrison thinks it's not nearly enough. The bill actually removes this recruiting rule for some of the permanent visas - and he's happy about that. He's been lobbying for a while to get more green cards into the hands of skilled workers.
But now it looks like the recruit-Americans-first idea is being shifted to the temporary visas - the H-1Bs. And that means the tech industry will still be plagued by insincere job listings and bogus interviews, and the undercurrent of resentment that those create.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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