A bipartisan effort to tighten controls on the tide of immigrants to the United States and secure more jobs for Americans has triggered an uproar in at least one industry that says it can't get enough foreigners.
It isn't in stoop labor or other dirty work of the sort Americans have shunned of late. It's in the high-tech electronics industry, which has blown a fuse this week over a provision in the complex immigration bill moving through Congress.
The section would require all foreign students to return to their own countries for at least two years after completing their education here.
Even at a time of soaring U.S. unemployment, some of the nation's high-growth companies and their feeder schools say that they are hiring foreigners in droves because the system is not supplying enough qualified American graduates who will take the jobs, thus jeopardizing their ability to compete against Japan, West Germany and other industrial nations.
Ken Haughton, dean of the Santa Clara University engineering school in California's high-tech Silicon Valley, is trying to fill some faculty jobs in engineering and computer sciences. He says that, of the 25 applicants he has managed to attract, only four are Americans, and they are not among the best qualified. The others are from Egypt, India, Austria, Greece, Poland, Iran, Brazil, and other foreign countries.
Stuart Mabon, president of Micropolis Corp., a computer company in Chatsworth, Calif., says of his work force, "We find that 30 to 40 percent of our engineering talent comes from foreign countries."
If enacted, the provision "would deprive the United States of highly skilled professionals needed in education, business and industry, and the American academic community of the mobility which has been one of its hallmrks," said Sheldon Steinback of the American Council on Education in a letter to the House subcommittee that was marking up the bill yesterday.
Four of every 10 graduate engineering students and one-half of those receiving doctorates as of 1979 were foreign students, according to a recent report by the National Science Foundation. And about one-fourth of all junior engineering faculty in U.S. colleges and universities came from other countries.
Qualified American engineers are lured away from teaching jobs by the higher salaries in industry, according to Steinbach. "We have between 1,600 and 2,000 faculty vacancies in engineering schools right now," he added.
Employers in the defense industry, where employes must be U.S. citizens, "grab the Americans," leaving nondefense employers highly dependent on the pool of foreign workers that remains, various industry representatives said.
Without the foreign students, "We would be seriously handicapped," said Micropolis' Mabon.
"This thing has moved so quickly--lickety-split--in Congress that a lot of the people who will be affected don't even know about it," said Pat Hill Hubbard of the American Electronics Association. "I don't think the drafters realize the impact it will have."
The immigration-reform debate has focused mostly on the huge influx of illegal immigrants, the degree to which they deprive American workers of jobs, and whether they should be issued identity cards or controlled by some other means.
The section that set the electronics industry to hissing and sparking would broaden an existing requirement that exchange students--subsidized by their home governments--must return to their own countries for at least two years after graduation here. The new measure would apply as well to those here on their own.
However, the Democrat and the Republican who are spearheading the bill through the House and Senate, Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky) and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), are committed to the provision, aides said.
"We don't feel that Silicon Valley [California's high-tech computer industry] is going to disappear over this," said an aide to the House immigration subcommittee of which Mazzoli is chairman.