Does IT Need More H-1B Visas?By Pedro Pereira | Posted 2006-05-05 Email Print
Opinion: While the country focuses on illegal immigration, the IT industry is pushing for more foreign workers. Should Congress go along?Few topics ignite passions as hotly as immigration. That's because immigration touches everyone, directly or indirectly.
It has always been so. Humans have always roamed, now assimilating, now displacing.
More often than not, who is displacing whom causes the debate. In the current furor over immigration, the debate revolves around whether illegal workers who sneak in mostly through the U.S. southern border are doing jobs Americans don't want or are taking them away from Americans.
The government caps the number of H-1B visas annually at 65,000, but if supporters have their way, that number will jump to 115,000. As the debate over illegal immigration continued to rage this week, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to hike the number of visas.
The bill, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, proposes to increase the H-1B cap to 115,000, with options to raise the ceiling annually by 20 percent based on employers' needs. Some supporters would love to see the cap pushed back up to the 2001-2003 number of 195,000.
As with all things immigration, H-1B visas are controversial. Opponents dispute the supporters' position that visas are necessary to accommodate a shortage of highly skilled professionals in technology and related jobs. Almost all H-1B visa holders have bachelor's degrees, and about half of them also hold advanced degrees.
Visa holders drive down wages for everybody because employers pay H-1B visa holders less than they pay American counterparts, say opponents.
Of course, the salary differential does not apply to all employers, and some companies, such as Microsoft, IBM and Apple, are reputed to pay H-1B holders salaries that are comparable to or higher than the pay of American counterparts.
Visa supporters say the 65,000 cap is too stingy and stifles innovation, the argument being visa holders who would otherwise contribute to technology advances may never set foot in the United States.
Both sides have valid points.
The H-1B program has a place in our economy. It fills skills gaps and has other benefits.
For instance, channel companies have used money from the fees paid by employers of H-1B visa workers to train their own staffs on much-needed IT skills. The money was disbursed by the Department of Labor through the H-1B Technical Skills Training Grant Program.
The question is whether the government should raise the cap. Before making that decision, due diligence is needed. Do we truly need more H-1B visa holders? Are employers doing everything they can to give the jobs to citizens or permanent residents before resorting to H-1B visa hires? One way to ensure they do would be to raise the fees.
In addition, employers that abuse the program by paying visa holders less than they would other workers should be penalized.
Furthermore, if we are going to continue importing skilled workers because they make an important contribution to our economy, we should reward them accordingly. The pathway to U.S. citizenship for these folks should be simpler and quicker. First, they must obtain green cards, approval for which can take years. Citizenship is possible only after five years of having a green card.
So what should we expect to happen? Most likely Congress will simply increase the visa cap without any meaningful analysis, and the debate will rage on. And so it goes with immigration.