Increasing Number of H1-B Visas Bad for America

Its an election year, so you probably expect our legislators to haggle over the bills before them in an attempt to court the votes of certain groups or sectors of the population. I'm happy to see that this year Congress is living up to my election-year expectations. Both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate are trying to appeal to the high-tech sector by passing a bill designed to increase the number of H1-B visas for temporary foreign workers.

Complicating the measure, Republicans are trying to block Democrat provisions in the bill that are aimed at simplifying Hispanic immigration. The bill is expected to pass before the end of this congressional session, but, I expect, not before a fight over immigration, as both parties vie for the Hispanic vote.

But the likely passage of the bill has greater implications for the high-tech industry and business as a whole. Increasing the number of H1-B visas allowed from 115,000 to 195,000 and exempting certain categories of foreign workers from visa requirements altogether will harm relationships between the United States and other countries, will have long-lasting negative impacts on U.S. business, and will adversely affect workers in the United States and abroad.

Think for a moment about our reliance on foreign oil resources and the impact it has had on our economy and our relationships with other countries. That same type of reliance on temporary foreign workers could significantly harm our economy and strain relations with other countries.

The influx of several hundred thousand skilled temporary foreign workers reduces the likelihood that American businesses will invest in the education and training needed to produce a strong American workforce that will sustain our economy over the long term.

What's more, neither the bill before Congress nor the current law contains any provisions to protect American workers from being replaced with less expensive, temporary foreign workers. For profit-seekers, the easy access to less expensive foreign labor might seem appealing; however, it is a Band-Aid solution that does nothing to support the long-term growth of a knowledge-based workforce in this country.

It is also unfair to bring temporary foreign workers into this country at a lower salary while dangling the carrot of permanent immigration in front of them. Many of these hard-working people have invested a lot to come here and many want to become U.S. citizens. We should not lose sight of the fact that we are a country full of immigrants.

The real solution to this workforce problem lies in a two-pronged approach involving both business and government. First, the best way to build a strong knowledge-based American workforce requires strong investment in ongoing worker education. Second, permanent immigration strategies must be properly leveraged.

On the first point, I have argued here before that it is crucial for us to invest in education across the board if we are to compete in the global economy of the future. Such an investment will require both time and money as we raise and mentor the workers of the future.

We need to become a learning nation, where continuing education becomes the norm. This means not only investing in the next generation of workers -- those now in school -- but also mentoring the existing workforce.

Moreover, we need to invest more in the technologies we use to deliver educational materials. Properly leveraging technology in education has the potential to bring knowledge to a much wider workforce than we can reach today through the traditional classroom methods. Growing the wider audience has to be part of the goal -- there are large segments of our population that could bring much to the high-tech table if education and mentoring were to reach them.

On the second point, we likewise need to re-examine our policies and the processes concerning permanent immigration for qualified individuals. At present we are not using the green-card process effectively. Last year, for example, we issued only a few more than half of the available green cards. Lawmakers need to scrutinize the process more closely and make changes that would bring qualified workers to this country as long-term contributors to business and to the country as a whole.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is trying to protect citizens' jobs. It is taking steps to advise Congress about the implications of the bill they are considering and the affects it would have on the high-tech sector. For more information on IEEE activities concerning this bill, see www.ieeeusa.org/forum/index.html.

Although there are many opinions on this issue, CTOs and other business leaders should be concerned about the long-term affects of this legislation. Training and valuing American workers is of paramount importance if we are to succeed in the future.

Do you have a differing viewpoint on the affects of increasing the maximum number of temporary foreign workers? Write to me at maggie_biggs@infoworld.com.

Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

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