U.S. senator blasts Microsoft's H-1B push as it lays 18,000 off workers

Republican lawmaker takes issue with U.S. corporate belief that there's a STEM shortage

WASHINGTON -- On the floor of U.S. Senate Thursday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) delivered a scalding and sarcastic attack on the use of highly skilled foreign workers by U.S. corporations that was heavily aimed at Microsoft, a chief supporter of the practice.

Sessions' speech began as a rebuttal to a recent New York Times op-ed column by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, investor Warren Buffett and Sheldon Adelson, a casino owner that has chastised Congress for failing to take action on immigration reform.

But the senator's attack on "three of our greatest masters of the universe," and "super billionaires," was clearly primed by Microsoft's announcement, also on Thursday, that it was laying off18,000 employees.

"What did we see in the newspaper today?" said Sessions, "News from Microsoft. Was it that they are having to raise wages to try to get enough good, quality engineers to do the work? Are they expanding or are they hiring? No, that is not what the news was, unfortunately. Not at all."

The senator's speech, which at nearly 6,000 words was the size a healthy book chapter, may be one of the longest dissertations on this subject by any lawmaker from the floor of the Capitol. It amounts to an extensive counter-attack against the tech industry and its support for using more foreign workers in the U.S.

Sessions' points were broad and didn't get into the mechanics of visa granting, but were clearly, though indirectly, aimed both at the H-1B visa and automatic green cards for foreign workers with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, degrees.

The op-ed by Gates, Buffett and Adelson criticized Congress for failing to act on immigration reform legislation. Although the essay does not mention the H-1B visa, the mere fact of that Gates is an author gave Session context.

Over the years, Gates has been a leading advocate for increasing the H-1B visa and green cards in the belief that the U.S. isn't producing enough high-skilled workers.

Sessions makes his point: "They don't have much respect for Congress and, by extension, the people who elect people to Congress. It appears from the tone of their article -- you know, American people, that great unwashed group; nativists, narrow-minded patriots, possessors of middle class values. They just don't understand as we know, we great executives and entrepreneurs. So they declare we need to import more foreign workers in computer science, technology, and engineering, because the country is 'badly in need of their services.' They say we are badly in need of importing large numbers of STEM graduates."

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) delivered a scathing attack on the use of highly skilled foreign workers that was heavily aimed at Microsoft.

The timing of his Sessions' rebuttal is clear. It came the same day that Microsoft announced plans to cut thousands workers, the majority connected to its Nokia acquisition. But he was not there to simply chide Microsoft.

Sessions says he is "teasing" the three op-ed authors "a little bit," as he questions whether the U.S. really faces a shortage of STEM graduates.

"What is the situation today for American graduates of STEM degrees and technology degrees?" said Session. "Do we have enough? And do we need to have people come to our country to take those jobs? Or, indeed, do we not have a shortage of workers, and do we have difficulty of people finding jobs?"

Sessions recently sponsored a forum that assembled some of the leading academic critics of the H-1B program. The group assessed the consequences of hiking the H-1B cap from 85,000 to 180,000, as proposed in the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill.

They warned of increasing age discrimination since most of these foreign workers are young, as well as make it harder for U.S. STEM graduates to find work. A cap hike could hurt wages as well. Critics say schools now produce many more STEM graduates than there are jobs for them.

Microsoft wasn't the only company to get in Sessions' crosshairs. He cited a letter by more than 100 large corporations sent to Congress late last year, urging immigration reform. The signees included many companies, such as Hewlett-Packard and Cisco, which have had recent layoffs.

"And just as it is not always true what is good for General Motors is good for America, likewise, what may be good for Mr. Adelson and Mr. Microsoft and Mr. Buffett is not always in accord with what is good for the American people. I know that. They are free to express their opinion, but I am going to push back," said Sessions.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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