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Despite layoffs, Microsoft holding firm on H-1Bs

In a letter to Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, Microsoft responds to criticism that it should reduce reliance on foreign-born workers in favor of Americans.

In the 18th century, the epistolary novel was all the rage in France and England. Now, it seems, the tit-for-tat style of opposing letters has become a preferred method of dialogue between Iowa Senator Charles Grassley and Microsoft.

Grassley: Not thrilled with Microsoft's H-1B policy

In late February, Grassley urged Microsoft to rethink the use of "H-1B or other work visa program employees over qualified American workers." Grassley issued his letter after Microsoft announced its first across-the-board layoffs.

"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," Grassley wrote.

Microsoft responded with an anodyne statement at the time but declined to engage the Senator.

Until now.

In a detailed response, the company's general counsel, Brad Smith, said there would not be a "significant change in the proportion" of employees working at Microsoft with H-1B visas.

Here are the key excerpts from Smith's letter to Grassley:

H-1B employees have always accounted for less than 15 percent of Microsoft's U.S. workforce, the level that is used in immigration law to determine whether a company is "H-1B dependent." Nonetheless, the ability to tap into the world's best minds has long been essential to our success. Although they are a small percentage of our workforce, H-1B workers have long made crucial contributions to Microsoft's innovation successes and to our ability to help create jobs in this country. We are confident this will continue to be true in the future.

We focus our recruiting for core technology jobs at U.S. universities, which continue to be among the best in the world for computer science and engineering graduates. However, as one recent study found, in 2005 temporary residents earned more than 40 percent of the engineering and computer science degrees at U.S. higher education institutions. For doctoral degrees, that number was even higher, as temporary residents accounted for 59 percent of the degrees awarded in these fields that year.

The substantial majority of H-1B petitions filed by Microsoft are for core technology positions, and technology and engineering positions account for about 90 percent of Microsoft's H-1B workforce. Many of these H-1B employees have been seeking permanent resident status for many years and would no longer be dependent on their H-1B visas but for multi-year delays in the green card process.

With these factors taken together, we do not expect to see a significant change in the proportion of H-1B employees in our workforce following the job reductions.

Microsoft declined to comment beyond the text of the letter.

After publication, Grassley's office sent me the following statement from the senator.

"I appreciate Microsoft's response and while I'm happy to learn of the company's efforts to boost science and technology initiatives in both American secondary and post-secondary schools, I'm still left without much information about how Microsoft is ensuring American workers are being protected or specifics of its H-1B hiring practices. I'm interested in learning more details."