Green (card) with envy

Green (card) with envy


The US Congress is looking at immigration reform, specifically questioning how to deal with the H1-B visa issue.  For those who aren’t familiar with the system, the H1-B visa classification is meant to employ immigrants who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree and work in an area that requires highly specific skills.  There is a cap on the number of visas granted, but there are exemptions to the cap for those who have a master’s degree and above, as well as those who work at (but not for) a university.  When someone comes to the US on an H1-B, they can also simultaneously apply for residency (i.e. a green card), something not allowed on most other visas.

There are a number of problems with the program.  Specifically, H1-B visas are often tied to the employer because the employer applies for and pays the costs of the visa on behalf of the employee.  There are requirements that the employer states that the wages being paid and benefits for the position are comparable to those for similar positions and that offering the position will not adversely affect US citizens.  Despite this, there have been a number of reports that employees hired under these conditions are, in fact, being underpaid as well as accusations that the companies are requiring employees to pay the fees for the visa themselves using workarounds.  From personal experience, I’ve observed people on H1-B visas working significantly more hours than their non-H1-B counterparts, and they’re in much more precarious situations in regard to worker rights’ than US citizens.  Getting fired for these people isn’t simply losing their job: it means deportation, as well.

A worse allegation, especially in this economic climate, is that there is no need for such workers.  Several studies have shown that there really isn’t a worker shortage, as claimed by those companies who want to increase the cap.  Further, the program seems to lead to wage depression, due to the low wages and the argument that more workers are imported than actually needed.  Some have labelled the program a corporate subsidy.

With all these problems, you’d think the immigration reform would be a no-brainer, but it’s not.  Politicians don’t want to deal with the issue as immigration is virtually a taboo topic: they worry their competition for congressional spots will easily be able to turn their thoughts on the H1-B as being in favor of handing ‘good American jobs to immigrants’.  However, Congress does seem to finally be moving forward.

In the latest issue of Science (under a paywall – sorry), they discuss some of the issues around the H1-B fiasco, noting the some of the strongest testimony came from Bruce Morrison on behalf of the IEEE-USA and the Semiconductor Industry Association.  The stance of the IEEE-USA is that those with master’s degrees and PhDs ought to be given priority when applying for a green card.  Getting highly skilled workers residency status will eliminate manipulation of the temporary status and reduce ties to a single employer.  Finally, they want a program that will keep these well-educated people from leaving or being forced to leave.

Rep. Jeff Flake, a tea-partier from Arizona, has presented a bill in congress to essentially present those who earn doctorates in the US with a green card upon graduation.  The idea is to try to make it easier for those who earn their degrees here to stay upon completion and contribute to the economy.  Not everyone is in favor of this idea.  Some are calling for changes, such as better monitoring of the program and requiring employers to give more rigorous evidence that the program doesn’t hurt American workers.  Both of these stances are of course in conflict with industries which are asking the program be expanded, mostly in computer programming.  One way or another, there is agreement that something needs to be done with the program.

What are your thoughts on immigration reform?  For those who live in other countries, how does your country approach the issue of immigrant workers in high tech, and do you agree with the policies?


Never thought I’d say this, but I love the idea of that Tea Partier (and the IEEE)! While there are many difficult issues regarding immigration reform and work visas and the like, I think losing students back to their home country after being in the US for education (especially research based) is unacceptable. There should be a focus on keeping talent that has already assimilated into the culture. These are the future entrepreneurs that create jobs. Furthermore, this will be an increasing trend, as highly skilled workers will have the opportunity to manage production–and eventually research–in their home country and language. With the lower cost of living and the room for promotion, who wouldn’t want to do something like that?

It’s a tough question. I definitely enjoy living in New York and being in a multicultural environment. Some of the smartest people in my class are not from this country. I have learned a work ethic, certainly I wouldn’t have had to study half as much if they were not here!

That said, I am hesitant to support a Tea-Partier’s immigration bill… At least in Mechanical Engineering there is no worker shortage. I am graduating from a top-20 school and I know several people who still do not have jobs and are contemplating abandoning engineering entirely. These are people who have 3.0 GPAs from a very competitive school and would make great engineers.

The talk about wanting more Math and Science in Education is hollow rhetoric if there are no jobs for those who work hard towards that goal. This bill seems more about putting more downward pressure on an engineer’s salary and job security.

In Sweden, now, the work-visa system has become simplified, and for the better. basically:

* Get a job in Sweden, a real, full-time, full pay job, and you get a two-year visa.

* If you still have a full-time job (not necessarily with the same employer) after two years, you get a two year extension.

* Still gainfully employed at the end of the next two years, and you get a permanent visa.

Idea is, if you, as a foreigner, can get and hold a full-time job in the country despite language problems, the risk that you up and leave again, and despite the availability of Swedes looking for work, then it’s because your skills are in real demand by an employer. And if you’re in demand it means you’re doing something that ultimately benefits the country (even if it’s just the income tax payments). So you’re worth having around, simply because you’re able to be around, so to speak.

This turns out to work reasonably well. There have been cheating by some companies (hiring people at far below market wages and such), but unions are watching like hawks for that, and it’s not very easy to get around the income tax collection system, so it’s not easy to hide any larger-scale cheating.

I’m not certain any government can get immigration right but they could at least fix these holes in the system that are so clearly obvious. One that amazes me in the UK is how someone can hang from the underside of a lorry and once in the UK is caught by the police, told off and then given directions to the local immigration office – never to be seen again.

We like all the other EU countries are expected to allow fair trade of people across our borders. However some countries are much better at pay, health or opportunities which means there is a constant migration from one area of Europe to another. These policies are also very impersonally. Its sad to see people who have gained a education, have full time employment and are financially stable to be thrown out because they are not part of the EU and when other that are can live off the individual member countries for free.

Polices will always be unjust and unfair to many and a free ticket to the rest – reform only changes what side of the line you are on, not reduce the margins.

I’m with svaha on this. I have no problem with working with interesting and diverse people from around the world. But the problem with our immigration policy became painfully clear during the recent economic crisis. Companies game the system to create artificial circumstances where only foreign engineers qualify for the position.

At the depth of the recession, literally the only only EE jobs available read something like this: (my example is test, but there were similar postings for other specialties)

Wanted: electronic test engineer. Must have 5-10 years industry experience and have a recent Masters or PhD degree.

Followed by a list of skills that an electronics engineer with 5 years of industry experience would likely have.

That is obviously earmarking a job for H1-B visa. Few test engineer jobs require an advanced degree. While it isn’t unheard of for an engineer in the US to go back to college after 5 to 10 years to get their Masters or PhD, they don’t do it so they can qualify for test engineer positions.

But it is common in, for example, China and India, for the brightest young engineers to work for a several years and then return to school for an advanced degree.

I’m still scraping by on contract and consulting jobs. I just spoke to friend that is an expert in RF who has worked on WiFi, WiMAX, and UWB. He is giving up on finding work in his specialty and polishing off his software skills so he can find some work, any work. I get regular inquires from my Linked-In network asking if I know of any other contracting work.

There is no shortage of hardware or software engineers at the moment. The claims of low unemployment in tech just isn’t born out by what I’m seeing on the street.

I’m no fan of the Tea Party, and this solidifies my opinion of them. The IEEE is also in the hip pocket of big industry.

The old industry saying is that if you don’t eat your lunch, someone else will, and I think this follows along the lines of thinking that by kicking out our competition we will be better off. The fact is the jobs may just follow those highly qualified and driven individuals that you are forcing out.

I think competition is a good thing. Having highly skilled engineers and scientists in the country is a good thing. Creating artificial scarcity, on the other hand, almost always ends up being a bad thing.

Part of what America has going for it, in addition to being an innovation hot bed, is that many of the best and brightest still want to come here. I can’t honestly see a single reason to kick such people out. I think the “lack of jobs” reasoning is misguided, and not just for engineering. Not to turn this into a full fledged immigration debate, but isn’t there something inherently immoral about denying a hard working self driven individual the right to citizenship because of a misguided belief that they will steal a piece of our pie? Let’s allow the doers to join us in making a bigger pie! Now I’m hungry…

I agree with SiliconFarmer and svaha. Retaining people who have been educated in the US is only so useful as it benefits the economy. The serious tuition inflation combined with the US having superiority in nothing else but its education system, and no requirements for citizenship (as well as universities happy to charge foreigners the extra tuition) means we have a lot of non-citizens who come here to get a top notch education. I’m not sure why we would make it easier for all of them to stay. The top notch ones will always find employers willing to pay for visas for them.

I kind of wish we worked more like Canada. In Canada in order to hire a foreigner you have to prove there is no Canadian willing and able to the do the job. In America you don’t have to prove any of that. You can get a visa pretty easily, import a foreigner to do the work until they demand too much pay, and then cut off their visa. I agree we need immigration reform, but it’s largely the number of undocumented immigrants who worked their way here and are filling jobs in the economy. The “highly educated” immigrants tend to be filling jobs that Americans actually want and are qualified for, but we want silly things like liveable wages and healthcare. They also can’t hold a visa over our heads as a threat while we work for them. If there was a true talent shortage I would think this is a good idea, but importing more labor we don’t need is like encouraging more people to go get liberal arts degrees at this point.

While it’s harder to hire foreigners in Canada than the US, it’s also easier to immigrate to Canada, which takes in 2.5x more immigrants per capita than the US.

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