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2/27/2013
11:06 AM
Rob Preston
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Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground

A 'virtual march' on Washington aims to bring more highly skilled technical workers into the U.S. It's time for a constructive debate rather than more vitriol.

The U.S. IT industry and a cadre of high-profile supporters are organizing a "virtual march" on Washington to lobby for what they call "innovation-focused immigration reform." Essentially, they want the federal government to make it easier for U.S. companies to hire and retain highly skilled and educated foreign professionals by issuing more work visas for those pros and even fast-tracking them for U.S. citizenship.

Notwithstanding the fact that virtual marches -- sans signs, chants and the passion of a physical protest -- are about as riveting as virtual pie eating contests, the movement is drawing a lot of attention. A similar virtual movement a year ago helped to defeat the SOPA and PIPA antipiracy bills that were before Congress at the time, so there are high expectations for this one.

The front organization for the March For Innovation is Partnership For A New American Economy, whose members are business and municipal leaders from across the country. Among its activists are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, AOL co-founder Steve Case, venture capitalist Jalak Jobanputra and Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro. The goal of the march is to sign up thousands of supporters and then have them take to social media to pressure Congress to let more foreign nationals work in the U.S.

[ Are your best employees heading for the door? Maybe it is you. See 4 IT Leadership Failures That Make Employees Leave. ]

A column in The Wall Street Journal by former publisher L. Gordon Crovitz mostly covers the march organizers' talking points. Among them: Every 100 foreigners who earn advanced degrees in the U.S. and then stay to work in technical fields create 262 jobs for American workers; 28% of all companies started in the U.S. in 2011 were founded by an immigrant; immigrants are more than twice as likely as a native-born American citizen to start a company; immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $775 billion in revenue in 2011. Each talking point (the group offers several others) links to research reports that support the group's claims.

At the heart of the movement is the notion that other countries are reforming their immigration laws to attract entrepreneurs and technical experts while the U.S. is turning them away. Australia, for instance, has used a point-based system since 1973 to evaluate prospective immigrants based on their potential economic contributions, prioritizing skill over country of origin. Likewise, Germany gives scientists, senior managers and other highly educated workers from other countries access to long-term visas, and it has opened up citizenship to entrepreneurs.

The evidence that immigrants can be a powerful engine of economic growth is compelling, no question. And in principle I'm partial to the view that highly skilled foreigners don't take away IT jobs as much as they create them. We as a nation should be concerned when many of the most talented people honed by our universities have no choice but to head home after graduation to start companies and make existing ones more competitive. We must overhaul this nation's visa and immigration policies to put more emphasis on economic need and less emphasis on numerical fairness, all while stanching the flow of illegal immigration.

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That said, this is a messy, gray, fluid issue. Who ultimately decides the economic value of a visa or immigration applicant -- a panel of bureaucrats or some corruptible public-private panel? Markets can change quickly. Yesterday's shortage of Cobol or Java programmers can turn into today's glut. How often do the legislators and visa and immigration panels update the rules to reflect those changes?

Engineer salary levels are stagnant in the U.S., despite the fact that tech employers complain of a dire labor shortage. So how many foreign-born engineers should we fast track for U.S. work visas and/or citizenship -- enough so that domestic salaries get depressed 10%, 20%? Ideally, visas and immigration would be loosened only for those engineering (and other) disciplines where the salary evidence suggests a true shortage, but it's unrealistic to expect the government gatekeepers to keep track of supply and demand for a range of technical specialties.

Longer term, critics complain that tech employers made their own bed. If not enough young people are piling into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, it's because they've watched companies ship many of those jobs offshore, the critics say.

Who's going to break this chicken and egg impasse? Will tech employers start bringing jobs back to the U.S., sending a signal to young people and their families that the STEM fields are a vibrant career opportunity? Or will students start gravitating back to STEM studies on their own, sending a signal to employers that they needn't relocate so much of their technical operations abroad or seek to import so many talented professionals? In my view, the ball's in the employers' court: Show the American public that you're truly committed to investing in a U.S.-based tech workforce, and this country will turn out STEM graduates in droves -- or it will give you the freedom to import what you can't find.

This debate, if you can call it a debate, is getting old (read the vitriolic comments underneath Crovitz's Wall Street Journal piece) because both sides refuse to listen to each other. It's not the greedy tech capitalists versus the rank-and-file malcontents, so stop ignoring each other's concerns as if they're irrelevant or nonexistent. There's a middle ground here, somewhere. And it can be found within the structure of debating and writing an immigration reform bill.

Find that middle ground. This virtual march on Washington is as good a place as any to start.

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MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
3/13/2013 | 3:40:45 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
I have to admit that I find the talking points confusing (another word for self serving and skeptical) as I try to sort them out. When I see immigration reform and IT, I equate it largely to an H1B visa which at its base is a ticket to work for someone who cannot find the skills necessary in the US workforce. So how are H1B holders starting the 28% of companies if they are supposed to be working for someone else filling a vacant need (I know they have so much extra time, they open a business)? Same confusion on the calculation that every foreign worker creates 2+ jobs (or 1+ if you take away the job filled by the foreign worker (262-100)) for native americans. Are the american jobs created as translators or to follow behind and correct deficiencies? Ad hoc studies designed to support a predetermined conclusion are a lot like opinion polls (highly subjective, dependent on the criteria for selection of the community being polled, and generally supportive of the individual/organization funding the poll).

That said, I agree there is a need for immigration reform and ample lattitude for a compromise IF there is a desire for dialogue. The dialogue has to start from agreement on unbaised, statistically based facts and as indicated the employer's demonstrated commitment to investment.
SouthRoad
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SouthRoad,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/28/2013 | 4:37:47 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
I was mainly thinking about the computer programming community which is the largest users of H1-B visas, and most of the supply is from India, and most of those visa holders work for western companies, and if they go back to India, they mostly again work for western companies.

So if we are talking about the software industry, then really no, I can't think of any products that are in any form of widespread usage that competes with our own and comes from India.

Now the argument may not be true in Electronics or other industries, but then again, since Software is the majority use of H1-B, and it is not true for that category, then I find it hard to believe that this problem is as big as people make it out to be. Maybe there are a few thousand people that fit into the "brain drain" category, but as a whole that is just a drop in the bucket and hardly enough to change the competitive nature of the USA as a whole.

I still stick to my original opinion and say that the "brain drain" argument is not a real phenomenon, and is in fact a straw man issue, and without facts proving me otherwise, I will continue to believe it is a make believe issue.

Can you provide any facts at all?
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
2/28/2013 | 2:29:16 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
SouthRoad, there are quite a few other countries outside the U.S. besides India. And I'm not just talking about work visa holders leaving the U.S. for home; I'm talking about people with advanced degrees earned in the U.S. having no choice but to head elsewhere after graduation. Not only are they going home, to India, China and other countries, but they're also being courted by the likes of Israel, Australia, Germany and Chile. Those countries are becoming ever more competitive compared with the U.S. You really can't think of any foreign companies producing products that are superior to those produced in the U.S.?
Prism
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Prism,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/28/2013 | 1:38:45 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
Hi Rob, I saw your article and I am a prime example of how immigration hurts employees and employers. I am a Canadian citizen and was recruited down to the US in 1997 as a Senior IT Consultant. I have been here since under various visas (TN, H1B) and have a 14 year old daughter who is a US citizen. I was let go in December 2012 and I have been looking for work since. I followed all the rules and changed my visa status with CBP / HLS but they only issued me a 30 day visitor visa under the condition that I DO NOT look for work.

Because of this I was forced to declare bankruptcy and uproot my family. We are baffled as to why they did this but there is no negotiating with the CBP. They use fear and intimidation rather than common sense and compassion. We love the United States and it is our home. It is a shame we are considered undesirable for some reason.

Did the terrorists win on 9/11? Based on how we were treated, I would say yes.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
2/28/2013 | 12:58:43 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
Is this a throwback to the times of slavery? You propose treating immigrants as a piece of equipment. I am an immigrant and the mandate to renew the green card every ten years is already a demeaning process. You propose to do that on a monthly basis? Like sex offenders and felons under home arrest? And a requirement to be fluent in English when a good number of citizens would pass none of those tests? And what would be the outcome of the debt coverage? Folks rack up bills to the wazoo because someone else is paying in the end, the employees keep these folks in what amounts to a penitentiary to mitigate risk, and the folks working hard could never get a car loan or things like that as they are considered too risky of a client.

The H1B program was created for a purpose: allow for hiring foreign skilled workers when the positions cannot be filled with local/national talent. The problem is that buying H1B visa is way too cheap. Companies that direly need talent to stay competitive should pay up to get the privilege to migrate workers in from other countries. As long as it is cheaper to get someone from India rather than to hire someone who lives in the US no company will make an effort to look around. Further, the binding to one employer ends after a year even if the visa did not expire. That will make it so that companies are forced to pay higher salaries to retain H1B candidates and get more return on the visa fee investment. At that point the focus shifts much more to getting the needed talent to stay competitive rather than abuse the H1B program to legally obtain cheap labor that can be thrown away once no longer needed.
Those who work under an H1B visa can apply for permanent residency under the same rules and regulations as anybody else, work experience, full time employment, and good conduct are good arguments for getting a green card.
SouthRoad
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SouthRoad,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/27/2013 | 11:18:50 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
I find your quote to be baseless: "We as a nation should be concerned when many of the most talented people honed by our universities have no choice but to head home after graduation to start companies and make existing ones more competitive"

I see no evidence that that is true.

I can't think of any foreign companies that are producing superior products than those over here. The only area where they go home and compete is if they go back home and work for companies such as Wipro and Tata, but then again, we have American companies over there also hiring them so when a visa holder goes back home there is just as much chance that they will work for an American outsourcing company as much as foreign, and when they are here, the it's the same thing. They can work for IBM or Tata. What's the difference if they are in India or over here? This is a global economy and whether they work for an American company over here or over there doesn't change the competitive landscape at all.

Also factor in the fact the MOST of the IT work being done in India is for American (or Western companies), then it makes little difference who pays them while they do the same work for us. Either way, here or there, most are not competing with us in any way. They work for us instead.

This quote has been thrown around so much yet I have not seen ANY evidence or examples of where visa holders are leaving the US and altering the competitive landscape at all. This argument is all baseless words being thrown around without any facts.

If we really are going to find the middle ground we need to start with the facts and not just throw around a bunch of words that sound convincing but mean nothing.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
2/27/2013 | 10:32:58 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
It's a fair point, spintreebob. Lots of immigrants (and their offspring) made their mark on this country without coming in with advanced degrees and specialized skills. But our borders aren't as open (legally) as they once were. There are far fewer slots. There has to be a better way to prioritize, even if it's imperfect.
spintreebob
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spintreebob,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/27/2013 | 9:24:07 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
The narrow special interest nature of this is disturbing. It implies that the politicians can micro-manage our businesses and pick winners and losers. Given past experience, even well intentioned "help" becomes a drag on the economy. The immigration direction should be simple. Keep out terrorists, murderers, rapists, DUI drivers, welfare parasites. But if a person works hard and provides for his family, why should we claim that hi-tech are better than lo-tech?
dbell947
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dbell947,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/27/2013 | 9:22:54 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
Hear hear!! What is going on in my IT organization is to rely exclusively on ODOT (Own Dime Own Time) training or O. (nothing period). That coupled with NO raises for past 7 years allows existing staff skills to deteriorate. They, then, cry: "There's a skills shortage!!!" H1B is lifted. New employees come in used to 3rd world working conditions and wages are thrilled to get 15.00/hour with no paid overtime-- our current new hire salary (this is expected to be given for free so you can prove you are a "motivated" employee). So you work 70 hours/week, get paid for 40 while getting no benefits. And you had better have a major project done, including Java/C++ coding plus all documentation, in a max of 2 weeks or else! Your salary can't pay for cont. training. Your skills deteriorate. You are told your skills are not current. You are shown the door. Rinse, repeat.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/27/2013 | 7:27:15 PM
re: Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground
Forgot to mention...

I still cynically find it interesting that tech employers complain about a labor shortage but still aren't willing to train anybody or pay their existing employees better (they want Big Bad Government to solve the problem for them).
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