Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and more recently Panasonic and IBM -- the flood of technology-related layoffs and firings isn't slowing and, sadly, is likely to continue for some time. Given that reality, isn't it time that the IT community speaks with one voice and demands that the government suspend -- or at least greatly reduce and reshape -- the H-1B visa program for the duration of the economic emergency?
Don't blame the immigrants -- or cry racism
Before I go further, let me say that I do not -- and you should not -- blame the workers from India and other countries who seek those visas. Like us, they want good jobs and a better life for their families. So I oppose the vindictive proposal from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to lay off foreigners first.
This critical debate has been distorted in a number of ways. Some echo the arguments of the 19th-century Know Nothing Party, a thinly veiled campaign of racism. But others, such as Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Wednesday, and Vivek Wadhwa on BusinessWeek.com position the argument as innovation versus stagnation. End the visa program and Silicon Valley will become the new Detroit, they say. Well, that's a stretch. Innovation by Americans has not decreased, and there's no reason companies can't continue to tap the best brains throughout the world.
And others, many of whom are well-meaning, refuse to listen to those of us who think the H-1B program is abused and destructive. They claim that anyone who opposes the flood of foreign tech workers into Silicon Valley is, well, racist, nativist, and anti-immigrant. That's wrong and unfair -- and it sidetracks the legitimate debate.
H-1B: A solution in search of a problem
When H-1B first became law in the 1990s, the premise was simple and made sense: The growing technology industry couldn't find enough skilled workers to fill key jobs. In response to lobbying by the industry, Congress permitted companies to hire foreign workers under a new provision of immigration law that established fairly liberal quotas for skilled workers.
Fair enough -- but that's no longer the case. With thousands of highly skilled and experienced IT workers looking for jobs, it's hardly plausible to talk about a labor shortage. No doubt there are exceptions. But not 85,000, which is the total number of H-1B slots available both this year and last year.
The 85,000 slots include 20,000 workers with advanced degrees from a U.S. university, which puts them in a somewhat different category. I'd argue that the provision for highly educated workers should easily fill the needs for research and innovation if the domestic workforce can't deliver. But I have to say that I'm not at all sure there's a research-and-innovation shortage either: There are plenty of unemployed engineers and researchers available.
What's more, the H-1B issue is separate from the debate concerning an overhaul of sadly confused and outdated immigration framework as a whole. Friedman's hardworking Indian immigrants would still have an opportunity to come to the United States and make their contributions as citizens-to-be if H-1B were suspended, using the regular immigration framework.
So why do we need H-1B visas today? I don't think we do.
Other countries have tough visa rules, too
Last week, I touched a nerve when I mocked IBM for suggestions that its laid-off workers should move to India for "prevailing wages" in lieu of collecting severance. Yes, that was a cold-hearted and ridiculous idea (and more than 27,000 readers agreed with me), but it does raise a point: Can U.S. workers really move to other countries?
Not easily. Most developed and many developing countries are quite strict in their regulation of workers who want to emigrate in search of a job. Sure, any citizen of the E.U. can work in any E.U. country, but tramps like us, as Springsteen would say, can not easily do the same.
Yes, there are exceptions, and in some cases it makes sense to look abroad for work. But it's not so easy to actually do. The United States is more generous than most countries in letting others work here, so why the claims or racism or nativism for those who question our policy based on policy grounds?
Indeed, when I lived in Ireland back in the days before the Celtic Tiger boom, I had to report occasionally to the local office of the Garda Siochana to prove that I wasn't working. Was that because the Irish were anti-American? Hardly. The country was in the midst of an economic crisis and needed to protect its own hard-pressed workforce. And there was nothing wrong with that.
So why are those of us who argue that H-1B is an outdated and harmful policy labeled racist and anti-immigrant? Part of the answer to that question is political correctness gone amok.
However, there are those in the technology industry who take advantage of H-1B to bring in workers and pay them less than prevailing wages. Waving the flag of immigrant rights gives them cover to push down wages and keep the domestic workforce from organizing. It's dishonest, and it's unfair.
The time to act on H-1B visas is now
It's not only laid-off workers who are suffering. In the last 10 years or so, the number of people forced to work as contractors has increased exponentially. Full-time jobs that might have gone to them are being filled by holders of H-1B visas. And that's a double whammy: Self-employed workers generally don't qualify for unemployment insurance, and they pay a substantial chunk of their income for benefits that companies don't offer them as contractors.
During his campaign, President Obama supported higher H-1B quotas as a stopgap measure. But as we know all too well, things have changed for the worse, and it no longer makes sense to increase the number of H-1B visas as there is no worker shortage.
We no longer have the luxury to wait for a reformed work-visa policy. Tell the president, your senators, and your representatives that reform -- meaning a reduction or suspension now, and a more rational approach to avoiding their use to lower wages in the future -- of H-1B can no longer wait. Our jobs depend on it.
I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.