ST - Immigration: working it out
Immigration: working it out
By The Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers
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Austin Farshi, standing, head of Virtual Atlantic in Tysons Corner, Va., oversees foreign workers Pranay Gujjeti, foreground, and Paul Murphy and Darren Gibney, left background. Legal immigrants offer more "expertise than many Americans coming out of college," Farshi says.
WASHINGTON — In a sleek, spartan office overlooking Tysons Corner, Va., three young men hunch over computer screens. Paul Murphy is designing a site for golf tournaments. Pranay Gujjeti is creating an image-editing program. Darren Gibney is producing a commercial for fire alarms.
These foreign-born software engineers — from Northern Ireland, India and Ireland — are legal immigrants, spending several years in the United States on special work visas. Their boss at Virtual Atlantic, Austin Farshi, says they bring an eager attitude and exceptional talent.
But as the emotionally charged issue of immigration consumes the Senate and the nation this month, skilled foreign professionals are almost as contentious a part of the restructuring debate as impoverished illegal immigrants who sneak across the Mexican border to harvest crops or hang drywall.
In many ways, the proposed legislation favors high-skilled immigrants and the industries that employ them. It would increase the ceiling on new H-1B professional visas, which allow one- to six-year stays, from 65,000 to 115,000 a year. More important, it would shift the historic emphasis in U.S. immigration law from family reunification to educational and skill levels in determining who is eligible for permanent residency.
For Doug Torn, who raises mountain laurel and rhododendrons in North Carolina, there's another issue:
"Most people don't want to get their hands dirty and sweat on the job," he said. "We use the guest-worker program because we don't have the domestic workers to fill the spots."
Which is why Torn, the owner of Bud & Blooms Nursery in Brown Summit, N.C., near Greensboro, has been lobbying members of Congress to support the compromise legislation that is under consideration in the Senate.
But the fragile compromise is under assault from a host of powerful interest groups across the political spectrum.
The Service Employees International Union, whose members include janitors, security guards, nursing-home employees and other low-skilled workers, wants to put foreign workers on a faster track to citizenship. Conservative groups want more emphasis on border security and more restrictions on immigrant workers. Manufacturers and small-business owners want to ease the burden of having to verify worker eligibility and reduce the penalties for hiring illegal workers.
Only one powerful interest group — the agri-business sector — has embraced the Senate bill in its current form. Agricultural interests desperately want changes that would authorize visas for up to 1.5 million agricultural workers, including workers that Torn needs for his nursery.
Somewhat surprisingly to the bill's supporters in Congress and the White House, advocates of skilled immigrants and the high-tech field say the higher visa ceiling is still too low and that the new rules would make it more cumbersome for companies to hire foreign workers, removing their ability to select individual workers to sponsor for visas.
"This bill is pretty much a disaster for high-tech employers," said Stuart Anderson of the nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy in Arlington County, Va. He said the proposed rules, which would require employers to prove a temporary foreign worker has special skills and would not displace a U.S. worker, are "so onerous and vague that you would start shackling fast-moving companies. The risk is that they may decide it is better to expand outside the United States."
A study released this week by the policy group found that, contrary to allegations that foreign workers are flooding a number of high-skilled industries, new H-1B visa holders account for 0.07 percent of the total U.S. workforce and that 57 percent of them have advanced degrees. It also found that, contrary to fears that Americans are being displaced, computer and math professions in the United States are at "virtual full employment," with jobless rates of 2.4 percent.
The issue is crucial to Microsoft. Chairman Bill Gates has repeatedly stated the importance to technology companies of expanded access to foreign talent through H-1B visas.
About one-third of Microsoft's 46,700 U.S.-based employees — roughly 15,570 workers — "are on some form of work visa or are green-card holders," Ginny Terzano, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
She referred to a statement from the trade group Compete America when asked for Microsoft's view on the immigration-reform proposal. The statement calls the current proposal "unworkable."
"[While] a merit-based system for allocating green cards may sound good for business, after reviewing the proposal, we have concluded that it is the wrong approach for the U.S. innovation economy, and will not solve the talent crisis facing many U.S. businesses," the lobbying group representing technology businesses said.
Some argue that the H-1B visa program displaces tens of thousands of U.S.-born professionals, depresses wages and exploits programmers from other countries.
"This is a cheap labor program, a 20th-century version of importing cheap tomato pickers," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. Older American professionals seeking decent salaries and benefits, he said, are being "squeezed out" of high-tech fields by young immigrants who are "willing to sleep on the floor and work 18 hours a day because they get something else: a shot at living in the United States."
In a study released this month, the center found that "very few" H-1B workers could be called highly skilled. It also found that wages for such workers were on average $12,000 less than those of their U.S.-born counterparts.
Groups representing U.S. workers in several industries say they have suffered from the H-1B phenomenon.
Critics of skilled-labor visas say high-tech firms in particular use a variety of tricks to replace domestic workers with foreigners and pay them less than the law allows. One such practice is to hire foreign students, who are exempt from visa ceilings if they have a graduate degree from a U.S. institution.
"If someone gets a master's degree in basket weaving from a fourth-rate diploma mill, should that be a fast track to immigration?" demanded John Miano, a software-industry analyst affiliated with Krikorian's organization. "Where do you draw the line?"
Seattle Times staff contributed to this report