Better Than That

CNN called it "Bloody Monday." On Jan. 26, more than 71,400 jobs were lost as massive cuts were announced by manufacturing and service companies. Yet even that did little to distract the attention of some who saw a darker cloud hanging over Microsoft's announcement several days earlier that it was cutting 5,000 jobs.

It was on Bloody Monday that Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau reported that an undisclosed number of H-1B visa holders would be among those Microsoft workers who were losing their jobs. Microsoft would only say that the number of foreign workers affected was "significant."

The dark cloud burst when there was no proclamation by Microsoft that H-1B visa holders would be the first to go. Companies are under no legal obligation to lay off foreign workers ahead of U.S. workers, and that didn't sit well with many of our readers. As is the case whenever H-1B visas are discussed, emotions ran high among readers who commented on Thibodeau's story. But the antiforeigner rhetoric was even more intense than usual, and there was a strong tendency to equate Microsoft with a demonic image of Bill Gates.

"Send those people home!" one reader hissed. "If our economy ever recovers, we still don't need H-1B people. We need [American citizens]! Bill Gates and Microsoft, and other firms, have made a circus out of H-1B."

If the H-1B program is a circus, there's plenty of blame to be shared. No doubt some companies abuse the program, and no doubt the government has failed to take adequate measures to prevent those abuses. But what's most troubling is the garish sideshow performed by those whose hateful nationalism (as opposed to honorable patriotism) targets the H-1B program.

A comment that was particularly alarming came from a reader who brought up the 2007 case of the YouTube video in which attorney Lawrence Lebowitz provided advice on how to fill job vacancies with foreign workers. "Our goal is clearly not to find a qualified and interested U.S. worker," Lebowitz proclaimed. The outlandish demonstration of intent to abuse the system was disgusting. But not as disgusting as the reader's comment. In a posting with the subject line "Traitors," the anonymous reader wrote that he had found Lebowitz's e-mail address. Yet that wasn't enough.

"Anyone know his home address so I can ask him PERSONALLY why he is a traitor to the United States?" the reader asked. "How about where he eats, what gym he goes to, where he plays golf, etc.? I would like to post all this information on a Web site containing this type of information on H-1B supporters and other treasonous acts."

I'm no fan of Lebowitz, but which is more objectionable -- a slimy lawyer or a creepy stalker?

It was amid all this gloom that I happened to meet with Charles Johnson, general manager of Microsoft's worldwide manufacturing sector business. We talked about the job losses and what Microsoft is doing to help manufacturers cut costs. When I brought up the H-1B issue, Johnson put it in a sensible perspective.

"We're a virtual company -- I've hired people who live everywhere," he said, referring to a few hires in China and Singapore. "One of them I would love to have moved to Redmond, but the value he's providing there is even greater, especially during the economic downturn, because he has real insights -- doesn't have an 'everything's built in Redmond' mentality."

Anyone whose knee-jerk reaction is to write Johnson off as another Microsoft demon who's giving jobs to foreigners and doesn't have America's best interests at heart should consider this: He's a West Point graduate who was deployed to Desert Storm in 1990 as a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne. He was awarded a Bronze Star.

Foreign workers aren't the enemy, nor are those who hire them. The enemy is the sense of hopelessness that triggers misplaced blame in difficult times. We've always been stronger and braver than that. Let's not lose those attributes when we need them the most.

Don Tennant is Computerworld's senior editor-at-large. You can contact him at don_tennantcomputerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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