Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tech Workers: The Burders of the H-1B Visas

More than half the engineers in the U.S. are foreign born, and most of these are in here on temporary H-1B visas. That is up from less than 10% in 1970. And half of the Silicon Valley businesses had temp technical workers as founders, co-founders or sources of new ideas. The country worried about the decline in U.S.-born engineering graduates in the 1990s and so had raised the number of annual to entice workers with high technical skill. But in recent years Congress reduced the number available visas, so that last year there were 163,000 applicants for 65,000 visa slots. Most temps long for a green card to stay permanently in the U.S. And Silicon Valley has become dependent on such workers. Ten percent of Google's work force has H-1B visas, but even more have become U.S. citizens or have green cards. The New York Times "Remade in America" series tells the story of one such visa holder.

The H-1B program, however, is controversial. There are usual nativist cries and the crocodile tears from Republicans about American workers. But there are real issues. Silicon Valley has a mixed history in caring for foreign workers. In the early stages of manufacturing some companies used Vietnamese workers to replace natives, til protests drove the companies to send production off-shore. Evan H-1B have grievances, especially the dependence on a sponsor employer, but generally are dissuaded from complaining lest their chances to get a green card are blown. American engineers also have an issue about the preference Silicon Valley has for foreign workers, but the fault does not entirely belong to employers. The U.S. educational system has not been effective in encouraging science and engineering. The big bucks for college grads was in financing -- until now. H-1B visas must be a significant part of a comprehensive immigration reform, but large issues will still be the plight of low-skilled temporary labor, family unification and the 12 million undocumented in the shadows. If the country is to continue to use high tech workers, then they also should be treated fairly and American students should be encouraged by public policy to pursue careers in the sciences and engineering.

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