The H-1B visa is either a betrayal of American IT workers or a necessity of the country’s high-tech future, and in a fiery debate both sides are flaming about what should be done.
For the high-tech community, what Bill Gates said about hiring foreign nationals under the H-1B visa program is a white-hot issue. “The whole idea behind the H-1B thing is, ‘Don’t let too many smart people come into the country,’ ” Gates said during a panel discussion at the Library of Congress two weeks ago, opining that if he had his way he would eliminate the quota for H-1B visas, currently set at 65,000. The demand for a more open H-1B policy -- and the debate over whether the United States has enough “smart people” of its own -- goes to the heart of the conflict raging between high-tech employees and employers.
Just to set the record straight, the government does not say anything about intelligence in its definition of the H-1B visa. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the new name for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, H-1B is a “nonimmigrant classification used by an alien who will be employed temporarily in a specialty occupation or as a fashion model of distinguished merit and ability.”
Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, disagrees with Gates. Matloff said the issue comes down to hiring “cheap labor.”
Although companies are required by law to hire foreign nationals on a pay scale equivalent to the pay scale of American workers, they are also permitted to hire by generic category rather than recognizing a particular skill set.
“You get an expert for the cost of a regular programmer,” Matloff said.
Some foreign nationals claim that their desire to stay in the United States has lead to exploitation. One contract worker who has since left the country told InfoWorld that he regards his employment here as “slave labor.”
“The companies try to lure you into accepting a green-card sponsorship, which means you cannot move for five years,” the contract worker said. Others claim that what employers call loyalty of foreign workers really amounts to uncompensated servitude in order to keep their visa status.
Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, said there are other ways companies avoid paying foreign workers what they pay American workers. Berry ticks off the practice of hiring younger foreign workers at lower salaries instead of hiring Americans with years of experience. Employers also benefit from the likelihood of foreign nationals moving on before they are vested in matching 401(k) plans offered by the company.
But there is another side as well. What Gates said about the lack of skilled American software engineers was echoed in talks with high-tech employers.
Randy Williams, an executive at TechSource, a computer graphics company, said, “The quality of the college graduate has simply plummeted in the last 10 years or so, computer engineering fields specifically.”
TechSource spent six months interviewing 150 candidates before turning to an H-1B solution.
Philip Bond, undersecretary of technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce, sat on the same panel as Gates. Bond countered Gates’ claim, saying U.S. engineers currently have a larger unemployment rate than the rest of the U.S. population.