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For Visas, The Demand Outstrips The Supply

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

"Welcome to the United Nations!" says Roy Higgs as he ushers visitors into his architectural design firm in Baltimore, where more than half of the 125 employees are foreign-born.

Behind him is a maze of brightly lighted cubicles, each with a plaque noting the occupant's name and native country: China, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ukraine, Colombia, the United States.

Higgs's reliance on international talent -- increasingly typical of high-tech, scientific and educational employers -- helps explain why immigration officials received a record 163,000 applications for high-skilled work visas this month.

That number, submitted by employers during a five-day application period, topped the record set last April, when 140,000 applications for H-1B visas were received. Despite the high demand, last year Congress authorized just 65,000 of the visas for high-skilled workers.

This year, 20,000 were added for immigrants who have just completed advanced degrees at U.S. institutions. A total of 85,000 requests will be chosen randomly by computer and then reviewed to ensure the applicants meet all eligibility requirements. An immigrant can be on H-1B status for up to six years in most circumstances.

With so many U.S.-born college graduates and technical workers looking for jobs, critics ask, why does the number of H-1B visa applications keep growing?

"It's because we have absolutely no choice," said Higgs, chief executive of Development Design Group, located in a sleek, remodeled brewery. "Some people think this is just about bringing in cheap labor, but it's not. We offer the same salaries and perks whether you're from Baltimore or Bangladesh . . . but we simply cannot find enough qualified U.S.-born staff to fuel our growth."

Higgs applied for three H-1B visas this year for temporary employees from China, Thailand and Spain. He argues that it makes no sense for Congress to set the annual limits so low, in part because the foreign workers help U.S. businesses grow.

"I agree we can't just keep importing people. And we have to do something to increase the supply at home," he said. "But in the meantime, if this program allows the best and brightest in the world to come here, why keep the gate closed? I don't get it."

Opponents of expanding the H-1B visa program dismiss such arguments as self-interested and shortsighted. They say many large employers, especially in the high-tech field, pay foreign workers lower wages to do basic, entry-level computer programming or other work that Americans could easily perform -- and for which the skilled-visa program was not originally intended.

They also argue that by importing so many foreign workers, businesses are discouraging young Americans from entering the market. If there were more competition for high-tech and research jobs, they say, salaries would rise and more American students would naturally gravitate to them instead of to more popular disciplines such as law and medicine.

"Lawmakers are often dazzled by the idea that these people are working with computers, but this is the post-industrial era, and an H-1B worker today is not much different from a railroad worker of 100 years ago," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that generally favors lower immigration levels. "This is just a cheap-labor program and another example of American businessmen being against capitalism."

According to surveys cited by Krikorian's center, more than 400,000 Americans lost jobs in the information technology sector between 2001 and 2004, while U.S. high-tech companies sponsored more than 250,000 H-1B workers. The surveys also found that half of high-tech jobs held by skilled-visa holders were entry-level or trainee positions.

"Our over-reliance on guest workers is becoming a vicious cycle," said Jessica Vaughn, a Boston-based researcher. In skilled nursing, she said, there are long waiting lists for U.S. college programs, even as hospitals and other employers keep hiring foreign nurses on skilled visas. "It has become easier to hire trained, English-speaking foreigners than to educate and train Americans," she said.

While employers, experts and legislators continue to wrangle over the H-1B program, thousands of applicants such as Wei Wen Yang remain in limbo, uncertain whether to put down more roots in the United States or keep their bags packed.

Yang, 40, a financial manager from China whose wife and young son still live in Northern Virginia, said that because the H-1B visas ran out so quickly last year, he could not find a sponsor in the Washington area this year. So he relocated to a firm in California.

"It is hard for us to be apart," Yang said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "If I get the visa, at least it will allow my family to be together. If I don't get it, we will have to make some hard decisions. If we have to go back to China, we will, but here there is more chance for professional development, and it is a much better place to educate our son."

At Development Design Group, conversations in multiple languages flow around drafting boards as teams assemble models of condominiums and office buildings. The atmosphere is one of intellectual energy, punctuated by bursts of youthful laughter.

"We look for talent wherever we can find it," said Ahsin Rasheed, one of the firm's managers and a native of Pakistan. "We don't hire based on where you come from, but we can say proudly that our staff speaks 24 languages. Our only frustration is that we can't hire more."

For employees awaiting word on their H-1B's, enthusiasm is mixed with anxiety. Thapana Sakulisariyporn, an immigrant from Thailand with a master's degree in architecture from the University of Michigan, said the Baltimore firm has allowed him to work on much more elaborate projects than he had expected.

"This may be the best chance in my whole life," he said, sipping green tea next to an acrylic model of a large shopping center. "If I can't stay, it would be tragic."

Marti Broquetas, 28, another visa applicant from Barcelona, suggested that foreign-born professional workers, in addition to benefiting from the advantages the United States offers, have something to give back.

"So many people in Europe have a bad image of America now, but we come here and we see another side," Broquetas said. "In America, everyone comes from somewhere else, and we all want to learn something new. The experience is enriching to all of us."

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