High-Tech Worker Crisis Is Unfair Game

Viewed from any angle, immigration is a divisive issue. Unfortunately, politicians on both sides of the fence now have the power to sap considerable energy from the United States’ high-tech fueled economy — making immigration policies everyone’s problem.

The critical issue is visas — specifically those issued under the H-1B program, which allows immigrants to live and work in the United States for up to six years. Despite a 40 percent increase in the quota, this year’s 115,000 H-1B visas were gone by early March — seven months before any more visas can be issued.

When the quota was reached, 300,000 high-tech jobs were reportedly still unfilled, and key members of Congress pledged action. But months later, a logjam of competing bills on Capitol Hill has destroyed hope for a speedy solution.

Businesses Band Together

The problem is so acute that more than 250 corporations in the high-tech industry — including Microsoft, EMC and Hewlett-Packard — recently banded together under the name “American Business for Legal Immigration” to lobby Congress to act.

“The fact that so many companies have signed on shows just how urgent this issue really is,” said Matt Tallmer, a spokesman for the group.

Indeed, in a letter delivered to every U.S. lawmaker last year, the business group laid out its argument in stark terms: “Failure to raise the cap to allow access to highly educated foreign professionals, many of whom were educated at U.S. universities, will result in lost sales, delayed projects and other setbacks that will threaten the technological preeminence of U.S. industry.”

Serious stuff. Perhaps a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect, but the long-term consequences of a dry high-tech labor pool are predictable: Productivity will slow down as salaries rise. The lobbying group plans to drive its point home by dropping the Help Wanted sections of some major newspapers onto the desks of lawmakers next week.

Time Running Out

As recently as a week ago, optimism ran high that as many as 100,000 visas per year — and up to 350,000 over the next three years — would be freed up. University graduates would then have the opportunity to go to work for U.S. companies immediately, rather than having to return to their native countries and wait months — or longer — for the immigration process to let them back in.

The hope for a quota boost has all but evaporated as a result of political maneuvering that has gummed up the works. Democratic lawmakers are getting heat from labor unions, who say more visas would threaten U.S. workers. The unions argue for better training programs that would enable American citizens to fill more of the high-tech slots.

President Clinton attempted to address labor’s concern by proposing to hike the visa fee from $500 to $2,000 and use the additional funds for training. However, by tying his proposal to amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country, Clinton put the brakes on any momentum his visa plan had gathered.

Clinton did not really change the debate — he peeled the cover from the issue and exposed the fact that immigration policies are increasingly elitist and unfair. In the president’s view, if a few hundred thousand college-educated software engineers were going to be admitted, a few thousand refugees from Haiti and El Salvador should be allowed to stay.

Not About Fairness

Clinton is right. It is inherently unfair to welcome certain people into the United States and shun others. But by his insistence on doing the right thing, the president runs a serious risk that nothing will get done.

Clinton knows that as a president winding down his last term in office, his political leverage is waning, but he also knows that Republicans are being pressured by business leaders to get the visas at any cost.

The president has made a slick political move. Unfortunately, it looks as though it will not work. The clock is ticking on the current legislative session, and when Congress returns from its summer recess, the election season will be in full swing. If action is not taken on the visa issue in the next few weeks, the number of foreign-born workers available to help keep the United States’ high-tech juggernaut rolling will actually shrink.

Clinton undoubtedly wants his legacy to extend beyond the economic boom, to reflect his hard work for the underprivileged and his efforts to better the lives of all people.

But the president should not risk stomping out the wildfire of high-tech growth in a bid to cast a warmer historic glow on his term in office. He should back away from his attempt to turn the visa issue into one of fairness and restore it to one of economic growth and prosperity for everyone.

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