Some say we need to let in more highly educated immigrants. Others say that’s just taking jobs from Americans

May 15, 2009

Visa lottery for skilled workers has doubters
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Monday, March 31, 2008

Visa candidates are left to wait anxiously; others question the need for such visas at all.

Tens of thousands of foreigners, most of them college-educated, will wait anxiously for the next two months to learn whether they will get work visas to stay in the United States.

Experts say American businesses will fill out more than 200,000 applications for 85,000 H-1B visas after filing begins Tuesday. The deadline is next Monday.

Candidates with master’s and doctoral degrees have a better chance because 20,000 visas are reserved for people with graduate degrees.

The competition for H-1Bs, dubbed high-skilled visas because they’re meant for people in desired fields, is so stiff that the government has resorted to awarding them by lottery, leading to pressure on Congress to increase the number of visas.

But the visas are not without their detractors. Advocates for stronger controls on immigration say companies looking for cheap labor are abusing H-1Bs.


Businesses apply for the H-1Bs on behalf of specific foreigners they want to employ. The visas are good for three years and can be renewed once if the worker is still employed. Eventually, immigrants can apply, through their employer, for legal permanent residency, commonly known as a green card.

Priya Chandy, 23, a 2007 graduate of Texas Christian University, is a candidate for an H-1B to work as an accountant for Ernst & Young. The government is expected to notify applicants in about two months.

“It’s pretty nerve-racking,” she said. “It’s basically out of your hands; you can’t do anything.”

If Chandy does not get the visa, she’ll have to move back to India or go back to school to stay in the U.S. legally on a student visa, she said.

Her friend Moe Malik, 27, a native of Pakistan, got an H-1B visa when he graduated from TCU in 2006 and went to work as an accountant with Deloitte in Dallas. Others were not so lucky.

“I have so many friends who had a 4.0 [a perfect A average] throughout college, and they didn’t get visas because their name wasn’t picked” in the lottery, Malik said.

Disha Peswani, 25, a native of India who earned her master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington, is a candidate for an H1-B this year through a recruiter in New Jersey.

“I’m very nervous,” she said.

Job creation

The graduates have the support of some of America’s leading high-tech companies, such as Microsoft and Texas Instruments. Nearly 40 percent of people who earned graduate degrees in engineering in 2007 in the United States were foreigners without green cards, according to an analysis by The Center for Measuring University Performance, based in Tempe, Ariz.

“It’s just the demographics of the graduate students coming out of U.S. schools,” said Amy Burke, Texas Instruments’ director of government relations in Washington, D.C.

She said her Richardson-based company supports programs to promote math and science to American children for future highly skilled workers, but the company meanwhile needs electrical engineers with advanced degrees, and most of those people are foreigners.

Dallas attorney David Swaim said it can cost a company $4,000 to $5,000 per H-1B application for legal and government filing fees.

“So the idea that employers are using H-1B visas for cheap labor is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s far more expensive to hire a foreign employee than it is to hire a U.S. citizen.”

Jacob Fund Kirkegaard, a research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Peterson Institute of International Economics, said if America doesn’t snatch up this talent after grooming it in U.S. universities, other countries will.

He said European and a few Asian countries have liberalized their immigration policies to compete for brainpower. America will need those workers especially as more baby boomers retire.


The largest percentage of H1-B visas, 43 percent, go to foreigners seeking computer-related jobs.

John Miano, founder of the Programmers Guild, said the country’s liberal immigration policy threatens the jobs of American computer programmers, especially those who freelance.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “The contract job market has been just destroyed by this. You used to be able to make a good living as a contractor for computer programming.”

Contract programmer Michael Vaught, 63, confirmed that work has dried up in recent years.

“I don’t want to be just another old guy who is griping about immigration, but that’s pretty much what I see,” said Vaught, who lives in Arlington. “I’m pretty concerned that the H-1B program is being abused in this country. It needs to be curtailed or even eliminated for those jobs, because there are Americans for those jobs.”

Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis, is so annoyed by H-1B lobbyists that he has made it his mission to oppose them in Internet postings, media interviews and articles in academic journals.

“When they say they can’t find people, they’re lying. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, but that’s the case,” Matloff said. “We have never come close to using even the majority of our graduates in these areas [computer programming]. The most we have used is 50 percent at our peak.”


The debate over the visas has led to proposed legislation in Congress. Some bills would give the Labor Department more power to hunt down fraudulent use of H-1Bs at the expense of U.S. workers, while others would expand the number of H-1B visas to help American companies and keep the country economically competitive.

A bill co-sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., for example, would push employers to hire Americans first and gives the Labor Department more power to ensure businesses are making that effort.

But Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican representing a congressional district north of San Antonio, introduced a bill that would pump 30,000 more H1-B visas into the system this year.