In uncertain times, the only sure bet is that Congress is going to come under renewed pressure to revisit its practice of granting temporary visas to foreign workers. Already, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is pressing Microsoft to give Americans priority over foreigners working in this country with H-1Bs.
"My point is that during a layoff, companies should not be retaining H-1B or other work visa program employees over qualified American workers," Grassley wrote on Friday after Microsoft announced its first across-the-board layoffs. "Our immigration policy is not intended to harm the American work force. I encourage Microsoft to ensure that Americans are given priority in job retention. Microsoft has a moral obligation to protect these American workers by putting them first during these difficult economic times."
Microsoft said Monday it had no plans to change its position on H-1Bs.
Last year, when Bill Gates appeared before Congress, BusinessWeek reported that Microsoft had received 959 visa petition approvals, roughly "one fifth as many as Infosys (Technologies, the top participant), while Intel got 369."
When it reported its quarterly earnings last week, Microsoft announced plans to fire about 5,000 employees. A spokesman said that some of the employees let go held H-1B visas but declined to get more specific.
Intel, which last week announced plans to close two plants in the U.S., similarly said that layoffs resulting from the economic slowdown would not factor into the company's H-1B plans.
The Intel layoffs will affect between 2,000 and 3,000 people, but "those aren't the kind of people who will be at risk of losing their jobs," a spokesman said.
The U.S H-1B program offers temporary work visas to foreign nationals who are considered by the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services to be qualified for a "specialty occupation." Companies argue that they need access to foreign-born college graduates with coveted technical skills. However, granting visas to foreign workers often is a controversial step. The argument gets even louder when the ranks of American jobless start swelling.
Among the charges is the claim that technology companies are less keen on hiring hard-to-fill spots than on creating a cyber lumpenproletariat willing to work for cheaper wages. The critics have also seized on instances where U.S. firms fired Americans while continuing to employ foreigners who held H-1B visas.
With the new political constellation in Washington, it's unclear what, if anything, will happen to the program. But Les French, the director of the tech labor group WashTech, said he hoped Grassley's move was a harbinger.
"We can only hope the general public is outraged that companies continue to apply for visas while Americans get laid off," said French. "We're going to try and get a grassroots effort going on our part to target senators who haven't been friendly on this question to step up and correct the problem. It's not only Microsoft. It's a growing list. My guess is that it's going to be business as usual and that the visas will be gone in the first few months of the fiscal year."