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At Work

Anger in Downturn Turns Against Foreign-Born Workers

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, September 9, 2001; Page L01

Singh, a foreign-born computer programmer, lives and works in California's Silicon Valley. He felt the chill earlier this year, when a former colleague sent him an e-mail message.

"He told me foreigners should go home," said Singh, who requested that only his middle name be used. "I am a U.S. citizen."

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Patrick McQuown, chief executive of the D.C. Web design firm Proteus Inc., had a brush with the same phenomenon last month, after an @Work column chronicled his company's troubles in securing an employment permit for one of its video designers, a Korean citizen. A batch of e-mail messages arrived, many professing the same sentiment.

" 'You're taking work away from white people,' " said McQuown, summarizing the content of the messages. "This is a real problem."

As layoffs continue to batter U.S. technology workers, forcing them to hunt aggressively for jobs after a decade-long boom in demand for their services, some are striking out at those who journeyed to America as skilled laborers under the H-1B visa program.

Some of the attacks rankle their targets as evidence of racism at work; others believe they stem from economic fears. Temporary work programs, especially the H-1B system, have long been a target of labor unions and U.S.-based minority engineers. Opponents of the visa system contend that importing cheaper overseas labor depresses wages for all technology workers and deprives minority and older Americans of a chance to enter and advance in the field.

"Even during the time where there were claims of a tremendous [employee] shortage, there were lots of people being left out," said Norman Matloff, a professor at the University of California at Davis and one of the nation's most vocal H-1B critics.

But, as businesses grew exponentially and demanded more well-trained employees during the capital-fueled 1990s, Congress hiked the number of foreigners who could work in the country. A Georgetown University study last year pegged the number of H-1B holders in the United States at 420,000 -- and estimated it would grow to 710,000 by 2002.

The rising tide of overseas workers during uncertain economic times has contributed to a "deep and growing anger" toward the H-1B program, said John Miano, a veteran New Jersey programmer and an official in the Programmers Guild, a group that fights increases in employment-based immigration. Miano said that for the most part, U.S. workers and their foreign-born counterparts are quite tolerant of each other.

"How long this tolerance is going to last, I don't know," he said in an e-mail interview.

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