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Bush immigration plan could affect techies

Although details remain fuzzy, the president's plan to tackle illegal immigration could create a new way for tech employers to bring in foreign workers.

Details of President Bush's plan to tackle illegal immigration remain fuzzy, but the program could create a new way for technology employers to bring in foreign workers.

If so, the stage will be set for another round of debates about the practice of temporarily importing guest workers for tech tasks--already a sore spot for critics of the H-1B and L-1 visa programs.

"Should the Bush proposal be implemented, it would be disastrous for American programmers, engineers and everyone in the country who can't make a living on the stock market alone," said John Miano, founder of software programmer advocacy group the Programmer's Guild.

Bush earlier this month announced his plan for a new temporary worker program. The program would "match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs." In a speech announcing the plan, the president seemed to focus on less-skilled workers employed in the United States. "We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy," Bush said. "The system is not working."

But in a speech last week at the Cato Institute, an administration official indicated the program could extend to highly skilled positions as well. Margaret Spellings, assistant to the president for domestic policy, said details of the program have yet to be worked out. But she said the program will be "non-sector specific" and mentioned nurses and teachers as possible workers covered by the program.

Nursing and teaching are relatively skilled job categories, which suggests that programmers or other tech professionals could be affected as well.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) trade group, said he has heard conflicting messages about the administration's new temporary worker plan. "It is still not clear whether the Bush plan will cover all worker categories or exclusively lower-wage categories for which there are no existing workable admissions programs," Miller said. "I have heard people from the administration state both sides, which makes me believe they are not clear themselves yet."

Miller said he would be surprised if the plan, when it is offered in detail, includes skilled worker categories. He noted that temporary employment programs for skilled workers already exist.

Two such programs are the H-1B visa and L-1 visa programs. The controversial H-1B visa program is designed to let U.S. employers import highly skilled workers, such as computer programmers, into the country for a period of up to six years.

The L-1 visa program allows companies to temporarily bring in employees from other countries for managerial or executive work or work that entails specialized knowledge. There is no annual cap for the number of L-1 visas that the government can give out, nor is there a required pay rate. In the H-1B program, employers are supposed to pay a prevailing wage.

Both programs have been blamed for making it harder for domestic techies to find work in a grim job market. India-based companies in particular have come under scrutiny for making heavy use of temporary visas and for the way their use of the visas may have accelerated the shift of tech work abroad--another source of anxiety for U.S. programmers and engineers.

ITAA's Miller defends the two visa programs, though he said he's heard concerns that L-1 visas have been given out to individuals without "specialized" knowledge. He thinks that if the Bush proposal does include skilled temporary worker programs, it "would include some provision to protect the wages and working conditions of similarly situated U.S. workers."

In his early January speech, Bush said: "Decent, hard-working people will now be protected by labor laws, with the right to change jobs, earn fair wages, and enjoy the same working conditions that the law requires for American workers."

But he did not mention a requirement that employers must pay a prevailing wage--nor does a White House document outlining the plan.

Miano of the Programmer's Guild doubted the Bush plan would garner enough political support to pass. Although he opposes it, he sees a silver lining to the proposal: It calls attention to existing guest worker programs and may derail attempts to raise the annual cap for H-1B visas from its current level of 65,000.

"It has publicized the H-1B and L-1 programs," Miano said. "Hopefully, Congress will be bogged down with this nonsense so much that they will not be able to expand H-1B."