Seeing the Light on H-1B Visas

To help ensure America's continuing technological leadership and competitiveness, IEEE-USA has long favored the permanent immigration of skilled foreign-born engineers and scientists as a much better solution than using temporary H-1B visas. Some in Congress finally seem to be listening.

The Senate voted on Nov. 3 to increase annual permanent-employment-based admissions by 90,000 through the visa classifications EB-1 (extraordinary ability), EB-2 (advanced-degree professionals) and EB-3 (baccalaureate-degree professionals and other skilled workers). It also voted to release 30,000 more annual H-1B visas, but differences with the House bill must be worked out in conference.

My career illustrates how permanent immigration is a far superior way to keep the U.S. competitive than relying on temporary admissions programs. I was born in Haiti and came to the U.S. for college. Following training in one of the world's most prestigious research laboratories, I became a permanent resident and then a naturalized U.S. citizen. Full citizenship contributed greatly to my ability to reach technical achievements I had never dreamed of and to become a top leader in the IEEE, the world's largest technical professional society.

IEEE-USA supports immigration policies that bring the best and brightest individuals from abroad and encourages them to stay. This has been our official position since 2000. Balanced immigration policies keep families together and create a level playing field for all workers.

The H-1B program, however, is plagued by myth and abuse. One myth is that the law requires U.S. employers to seek H-1B applicants only when qualified Americans can't be found. But it wasn't a scarcity of talented Americans that led U.S. companies to max out the 65,000 H-1B visa cap for fiscal 2006; it was because H-1B workers have largely become a first option, not a last resort.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show a decline of 221,000 employed U.S. technical workers in six major computer and engineering job classifications from 2000 to 2004. Surely many of these skilled workers could qualify for positions filled by H-1Bs.

Many H-1B visas -- including the 20,000 for advanced-degree graduates of U.S. institutions \\ are used by companies that offer lower-cost technical services by non-U.S. citizens. This leads to wage suppression. The 2003 IEEE-USA salary survey reflected this with the first decline in median income for U.S. IEEE members in 31 years.

This is not surprising, considering the wages the Labor Department lets U.S. companies pay H-1B workers. A review of the Labor Condition Application database for the first quarter of fiscal 2005 reveals that an H-1B electrical engineer makes $10 an hour, a Web site translator $8 per hour and a secondary school math teacher just $16,034 a year. The law requires that H-1B employees be paid the prevailing wage for their occupations, but the implementation of these regulations can be, and is, easily gamed.

Three government reports have found flaws in the H-1B program. Perhaps most troubling is a September Department of Homeland Security report that found that the DHS lacks the technology and methodology "to adhere to the legislated cap" of 65,000. The DHS approved approximately 71,740 H-1B visa petitions in fiscal 2005.

So rather than adding more H-1B visas to a flawed system that hurts all workers, Congress should focus on fixing the permanent admissions program. This will help bring the talents needed to keep the U.S. economy the world's strongest and most innovative.

Gerard A. Alphonse is IEEE-USA's 2005 president and an IEEE fellow. He is senior vice president of advanced technologies at Medeikon Corp. in Ewing, N.J.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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