H-1B at 20: How the 'tech worker visa' is remaking IT in America

The H-1B visa program turns 20 years old this month. Not everyone in IT is saying 'Best Wishes.'

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Marko C. Maglich, an attorney at White & Case LLP who specializes in labor, employment and immigration law, says petitions can be as thick as five inches, and hiring firms have to prove that there is indeed a bona fide company. "There is going to be more resistance now," he says.

The H-1B gets political

Some argue that Congress has to make changes to the visa program that not only increase oversight, but also do more to protect U.S. jobs. In its report, the Economic Policy Institute contended that policy changes to the H-1B program could retain tens of thousands of jobs for U.S. workers.

Compete America, which represents industry groups and universities that support the H-1B visa, dismissed the report and said the "overwhelming weight of the evidence shows that highly educated foreign-born professionals benefit the U.S. economy."

But the recession and rise of the offshoring of IT and other services made the jobs shift a top political issue in the most recent national election, and a prominent one in some races, particularly in the contest in California between U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina.

Boxer repeatedly attacked Fiorina for layoffs and offshoring during her years at HP. Boxer won re-election. Another ex-CEO, Meg Whitman of eBay, who was defeated in her run for governor of California, was also hit on the outsourcing issue.

"The fact that these two tech CEOs did not win I think sends a message to both parties. There is some popular discontent that [they] don't understand," said Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, who testified in Congress in 1998 on what he called the myth of a software labor shortage.

Although there is an ongoing push for immigration reform in Congress, both sides on this issue are doubtful that the election divisions will lead to new legislation. H-1B opponents, however, are fearful that a bill to raise the H-1B cap could be attached to an appropriations bill during the lame-duck session before January.

As for U.S. IT workers themselves, activism ebbs and flows regarding the H-1B issue, says John Miano, who founded the Programmers Guild to organize IT workers in 1998, when Congress began expanding the H-1B program. Miano himself was working as an IT consultant at AIG in the mid-1990s when the company hired an outsourcer who used H-1B workers to replace U.S. workers.

"Even at the peaks, [techies] tend to be moderately active -- they are not into politics and things," says Miano. (See H-1B: The voices behind the visa for thoughts from some U.S. IT workers on why they feel the need to stay anonymous in their criticism of the H-1B program.)

As for Serrano, her layoff from IBM will mean a change of careers as she heads back to school to pursue a degree in nursing. She feels her IT career prepared her well for nursing because both fields require people who are detail-oriented and cool under pressure. An ideal outcome of the nursing training, she says, would be to combine her IT and nursing skills into a health informatics career.

The contractor that Serrano trained at IBM was from China, but Serrano didn't know her immigration status. And despite having to train her replacement, Serrano says she had a good relationship with the woman, "because she's just another person that's struggling in a whole world of struggling individuals."

Serrano says she isn't bitter. She sees the struggle facing IT workers today paralleling the same kinds of challenges that workers of earlier generations faced. But she would like to see a change in the national discussion on offshoring.

Serrano believes that businesses and government need to be "completely open about what's going on" -- about offshore outsourcing and reasons behind it.

[Related: View maps and data showing the geographic concentration of 2009 H-1B visa applications for tech jobs as a heat map, by city or as a searchable, sortable database. And read H-1B: The voices behind the visa for individuals' stories of how the H-1B program has changed their lives.]

Next: H-1B: The voices behind the visa

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

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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