Worker Visas Intensify Debate on Immigration

Austin Farshi, head of Virtual Atlantic, oversees foreign workers Paul Murphy and Pranay Gujjeti, foreground, and Darren Gibney. Legal immigrants offer more
Austin Farshi, head of Virtual Atlantic, oversees foreign workers Paul Murphy and Pranay Gujjeti, foreground, and Darren Gibney. Legal immigrants offer more "expertise than many Americans coming out of college," Farshi says. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

In a sleek, spartan office overlooking Tysons Corner, three young men in shirt sleeves hunch over computer screens. Paul Murphy is designing a site for golf tournaments. Pranay Gujjeti is creating an image-editing program. Darren Gibney is producing a commercial for fire alarms.

These foreign-born software engineers -- from Northern Ireland, India and Ireland -- are legal immigrants, spending several years in the United States on special work visas. They say they thrive on the exposure to America's cutting-edge technology and competitive culture. Their boss at Virtual Atlantic Inc., Austin Farshi, says they bring an eager attitude and exceptional talent.

But as the emotionally charged issue of immigration consumes the U.S. Senate and the nation this month, skilled foreign professionals are almost as contentious a part of the restructuring debate as impoverished illegal immigrants who sneak across the Mexican border to harvest crops or hang drywall.

In many ways, the proposed legislation favors high-skilled immigrants and the industries that employ them. It would increase the ceiling on new H-1B professional visas, which allow one- to six-year stays, from 65,000 to 115,000 a year. More important, it would shift the historic emphasis in U.S. immigration law from family-reunification to educational and skill levels in determining who is eligible for permanent residency.

Companies that rely on skilled foreign workers say they desperately need more of them, but opponents see their proliferation as an invisible blight on the economy. They argue that the H-1B visa program displaces tens of thousands of U.S.-born professionals, depresses wages and exploits programmers from other countries.

"This is a cheap labor program, a 20th-century version of importing cheap tomato pickers," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. Older American professionals seeking decent salaries and benefits, he said, are being "squeezed out" of high-tech fields by young immigrants who are "willing to sleep on the floor and work 18 hours a day because they get something else: a shot at living in the United States."

In a study released last week, the center found that "very few" H-1B workers could be called highly skilled. It also found that wages for such workers were on average $12,000 below their U.S.-born counterparts and that employers often said the "prevailing" wage in a variety of skilled fields -- which the law says all H1-B visa holders must be paid -- was significantly lower than it actually was.

Groups representing U.S. workers in several industries say they have suffered from the H-1B phenomenon, especially electrical engineers and computer programmers. John Bauman, president of a Connecticut professional workers rights group, said many members once held skilled jobs in the state's huge insurance industry but were gradually laid off and replaced by low-cost foreigners.

"Our co-founder once earned more than $100,000 with an insurance firm. Now he's driving an 18-wheeler," Bauman said.

Critics of skilled labor visas say high-tech firms in particular use a variety of tricks to replace domestic workers with foreigners and pay them less than the law allows. One such practice is to use subcontracting firms to sponsor their visas so the actual employers are not subject to the same legal restrictions. Another is to hire foreign students, who are exempt from visa ceilings if they have a graduate degree from a U.S. institution.

"If someone gets a master's degree in basket weaving from a fourth-rate diploma mill, should that be a fast track to immigration?" demanded John Miano, a software industry analyst affiliated with Krikorian's organization. "Where do you draw the line?"

Somewhat surprisingly to the bill's supporters in Congress and the White House, advocates of skilled immigrants and the high-tech field have heaped criticism instead of praise on the proposal. They say that the higher visa ceiling is still too low and that the new rules would make it more cumbersome for companies to hire foreign workers, removing their ability to select individual workers to sponsor for visas.

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