Skilled Workers

Most See Visa Program as Severely Flawed

By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

Somewhere in the debate over immigration and the future of illegal workers, another, less-publicized fight is being waged over those who toil in air-conditioned offices, earn up to six-figure salaries and spend their days programming and punching code.

They are foreign workers who arrive on H-1B visas, mostly young men from India and China tapped for skilled jobs such as software engineers and systems analysts. Unlike seasonal guest workers who stay for about 10 months, H-1B workers stay as long as six years. By then, they must obtain a green card or go back home.

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony for and against expanding the H-1B program. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would increase the H-1B cap to 115,000 from 65,000 and allow some foreign students to bypass the program altogether and immediately get sponsored for green cards, which allow immigrants to be permanent residents, free to live and work in the United States.

But underlying the arguments is a belief, even among the workers themselves, that the current H-1B program is severely flawed.

Opponents say the highly skilled foreign workers compete with and depress the wages of native-born Americans.

Supporters say foreign workers stimulate the economy, create more opportunities for their U.S. counterparts and prevent jobs from being outsourced overseas. The problem, they say, is the cumbersome process: Immigrants often spend six years as guest workers and then wait for green card sponsorship and approval.

At the House committee hearing yesterday, Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit research group, spoke in favor of raising the cap. Still, he said in an interview, the H-1B visa is far from ideal. "What you want to have is a system where people can get hired directly on green cards in 30 to 60 days," he said.

Economists seem divided on whether highly skilled immigrants depress wages for U.S. workers. In 2003, a study for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found no effect on salaries, with an average income for both H-1B and American computer programmers of $55,000.

Still, the study by Madeline Zavodny, now an economics professor at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., concluded "that unemployment was higher as a result of these H-1B workers."

In a working paper released this week, Harvard University economist George J. Borjas studied the wages of foreigners and native-born Americans with doctorates, concluding that the foreigners lowered the wages of competing workers by 3 to 4 percent. He said he suspected that his conclusion also measured the effects of H-1B visas.

"If there is a demand for engineers and no foreigners to take those jobs, salaries would shoot through the roof and make that very attractive for Americans," Borjas said.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA says H-1B salaries are lower. "Those who are here on H-1B visas are being worked as indentured servants. They are being paid $13,000 less in the engineering and science worlds," said Ralph W. Wyndrum Jr., president of the advocacy group for technical professionals, which favors green-card-based immigration, but only for exceptional candidates.


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