Businesses say lifting cap of visas could help cities
Last year was bad.
This year, even worse -- a crush of applications, but a dearth of H-1B visas awarded to employers who say they need to import educated foreign workers to occupy high-tech positions that can't be filled by the American work force.
This month, companies across the United States began filing petitions for 85,000 available work visas, which will be awarded through a random lottery. Last year, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services received 133,000 petitions over two days in April before closing the application window. This year, immigration services accepted petitions for a full business week starting April 1, meaning the number of petitions could exceed 200,000.
The limitations are especially crippling to cities such as Pittsburgh, many businesses here argue, because drawing an educated immigrant class is the city's best short-term hope for population and economic growth, since the native-born population keeps dropping.
"We need more qualified people in this country than we have," said Jim Marczak, chief executive of Sycor Americas and its Montreal sister company. Sycor, an IT consulting firm, applied for 40 of the visas, meaning they've agreed to employment contracts with 40 foreign workers, most of them from India and Eastern Europe.
If Sycor should happen to win some of the visas for which it has petitioned, those temporary workers won't be able to work here until October, the beginning of the federal fiscal year. (In Canada, they'd clear immigration in eight weeks.) Those who don't win a visa have been promised back-up offers in Sycor's German and Canadian operations, even though, Mr. Marczak said, "I would have preferred to focus here in Pittsburgh" rather than abroad.
In the 1990s -- when the visa program was created for engineers, doctors, programmers and scientists -- the number of visas available for educated professional immigrants was capped at 195,000 per year. But now it's at 65,000 for workers with at least a bachelor's degree, plus an additional 20,000 visas for those with higher degrees.
So if demand outstrips the supply of visas, why doesn't Congress just increase the cap?
That, of course, is a politically sticky point for labor unions (which say the immigrant workers take American jobs and drive down salaries), social conservatives and populist talk-show hosts (who say much the same), not to mention each and every unemployed computer programmer or tech worker in the country, who might rightly wonder, "If there are hundreds of thousands of openings, why can't I get a job?"
Politicians, both Democratic and Republican, are treading carefully in this, an election year. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in letter this month that "we need to ensure that firms are not misusing these visas, causing American workers to be unfairly deprived of good high-skill jobs here at home. ... The H-1B program can't be allowed to become a job-killer in America." The letter was addressed to the top 25 H-1B petitioners, which together gobbled up 20,000 of the visas that were awarded last year.
The issue is all the more pointed in the face of what appears to be a U.S. recession, and huge job losses nationally.
Richard T. Herman, an immigration lawyer in Cleveland, says part of the problem lies in the perception that tech workers are somehow interchangeable parts. Using Cleveland as an example, he said his region has literally thousands of jobs available in the biotech fields, but that didn't mean anything to the out-of-work software developer whose resume has been languishing on Monster.com for six months. And even if there are raw numbers of biotech grads in California or Texas looking for jobs, that doesn't necessarily mean they're willing to move to Cleveland, whereas immigrants are more willing to uproot.
Part of the problem, too, is that some companies do indeed abuse the system, importing more than their share of workers without proving that they are suffering from a labor shortage, squeezing out older workers for younger ones, then paying the new workers less than the prevailing American market wage, something that is required by the federal government, but not meticulously audited. "That may be a valid criticism," Mr. Herman said.
So computer programmers bristle when they hear companies say they can't find qualified workers -- shouldn't a worker shortage result in skyrocketing salaries? Companies bristle when accused of importing "cheap" labor -- noting that there are thousands of dollars in fees for each employee brought to America via H-1B. Critics say that tech firms haven't proven a worker shortage to Congress, but instead "convinced" Congress via tens of millions in lobbying money and campaign contributions. And economists contend the resistance to "professional" immigrants has cost Americans ancillary and support jobs associated with the positions -- secretaries and such that now work at Microsoft's new Vancouver programming center, instead of in Seattle.
"When an employer can't get the workers here, then it's possible that the employer will say, 'Well, we might need to send the work elsewhere,' " said Catherine Wadhwani, an immigration attorney with Spilman Thomas & Battle, Downtown.
But what if that someplace else was Pittsburgh? What if the cap remained in place across most of the country but was lifted for places that are lagging economically -- Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh?
It's a strategy being bounced around by think tanks and immigration advocates. Mr. Herman saya we should call them "High-Skill Immigration Zones," patterning the relief from H-1B caps after a similar visa program that allows foreign investors to plant their money more easily in economically "distressed" regions. That program, the EB-5, grants up to 10,000 visas a year to deep-pocketed foreigners; Western Pennsylvania is already on the list of "regional centers" that can participate in the program.
But that program is for investors. Mr. Herman thinks an argument can be made that we should take the same regional approach for workers.
"The argument is that these regions are so far behind in knowledge-based economies. ... The knowledge work force still isn't there," he contended.
States such as Ohio, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania -- all of them vote-rich, three of them swing states -- could lobby for cap exemption on the very basis of their importance in the coming election, said Brookings Institution fellow John Austin, who directs the Great Lakes Economic Initiative, meant to examine and bolster Rust Belt economies.
It seems like a long shot. If Pittsburgh and Cleveland were to get breaks on the H-1B visa caps, wouldn't businesses in Texas, North Carolina and California want the cap lifted, too?
Undoubtedly. In fact, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has just introduced a bill that would increase the annual cap on H-1B visas to 195,000 in 2008 and 2009. But if that doesn't fly this year, maybe it's in the country's best interest to artificially level the playing field, if only temporarily, for the hard-luck regions.
"It would be very good federal policy," Mr. Austin said. "The best economic policy for our region would be a very wide door [for educated immigrants]. It's what's helped Toronto and other places be booming, world-class cities."
First Published April 13, 2008 12:00 am