High-tech companies want separate discussion about legal immigration

Published 29 October 2007

High-tech companies say their ability to compete in the world’s market, and U.S. competitiveness more genrally, are hampered by limits which are too stringent on high-skill legal immigrants

Here is a new phenomenon, an unexpected result of the increasingly intense debate immigration into the United States: Most of the debate revolves around illegal immigrants, but legal immigrants want their side of the story — and their grievances — to be heard, too. High-tech workers who are in the United States on federal permits are speaking out over rules that leave them in personal and professional limbo. AP reports that after Congress failed to reform immigration laws for the second year in a row, hundreds of the largely India- and China-born workers protested this summer in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. They were frustrated that the divisive debate over illegal immigration had overwhelmed efforts at comprehensive immigration reform. Legal immigrants who feel squeezed by limits on the number of green cards issued each year are trying to separate their complaints from the protests by illegal immigrants. They are joined by high-tech companies that say they cannot fill jobs because of a cap on skilled-worker visas have stepped up their long-standing plea for the cap to be raised.

The green card application system is akin to ”indentured servitude,” said Kim Berry, president of the Programmers’ Guild, a group which opposes current work visa laws. ”It takes years for the green card sponsorship to happen, and they can’t leave, can’t ask for a raise unless they want to lose their place in line.” Applications for work-related green cards — limited to 140,000 each year, about 9,800 per sending country — are so backlogged that many immigrants must plod along for years, uncertain about their future in the United States and unable to change jobs while they wait for permanent residence. The demand of the U.S. economy for foreign-born skilled workers is illustrated by these two contrasting fact:

* 2004: Three years ago it took ten months for U.S. businesses to fill the annual quota of legal skilled-workers

* 2007: On just the first day the government was accepting applications, legal skilled-workers, businesses filed applications for double the number that could be considered the whole year

As a result, immigration officials resorted to a lottery for H1-B work visas this summer.

American-born tech workers criticize the current visa system, arguing that the annual influx of 65,000 foreign workers takes jobs from Americans and puts a damper on all salaries. The high-tech industry disagrees, and is putting its muscle behind its foreign workers. ”They’re the smartest in their field, recognized as essential to the companies’ growth, yet this immigration system subjects them to second-class status,” said Robert Hoffman, a vice president with business software company Oracle Corp. and cochairman of Compete America, a coalition pushing to increase the number of work visas available. Besides Oracle, its members include such heavyweights as Microsoft and Intel. The industry is asking Congress to consider limited reform targeting only legal immigrants — more H1-B visas, more green cards — as a more palatable alternative to a bigger bill that also addresses illegal immigration. In 2006 there were more than one million foreign nationals in line for permanent residency. More than 500,000 came into the U.S. on H1-Bs, and the rest through family connections. Microsoft was the third-largest sponsor of H1-B visas in the last federal fiscal year, but it still did not get all the foreign workers it wanted into the country. The company’s government affairs director said this was one motivation for Microsoft to open a new software development center in Canada. ”We currently do 85 percent of our development work in the U.S., and we’d like to continue doing that,” said Jack Krumholtz. ”But if we can’t hire the developers we need … we’re going to have to look to other options to get the work done.”

Smaller companies, which may need only one foreign worker, say they suffer most under the visa cap because they do not have the flexibility of the giants in the field. Elmsford, New York-based Hypres develops superconducting integrated circuits and employs thirty-five highly specialized researchers. They neded one more, and an extensive job search recently identified one match — in Sweden. The company submitted the H1-B request on the first day possible, but it was among the 150,000 requests, and it wasn’t picked in the lottery. ”For us, it was a big hit,” said Oleg Mukhanov, Hypres’ vice president for technology, saying they’d already taken on government contracts counting on the prospective employee’s expertise. ”We need to be able to compete for such people on a global stage. Or else we just can’t compete.”