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Immigration plan could cut workforce

The number of foreign workers high-tech companies can bring to the United States may be dramatically reduced if a new federal law is enacted.

The number of foreign workers high-tech and Internet companies are able to bring to the United States may be dramatically reduced if recommendations by a federal committee are made law.

A report released yesterday to Congress by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform called for employment-based legal immigration to be cut 30 percent, allowing only 100,000 admissions per year, including workers' family members.

The proposal, "Becoming an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy," also stated that employers must pay a "reasonable user fee dedicated to facilitating the processing of applications," as well as the "costs of auditing compliance" with other requirements laid out by the commission.

Although the report dealt with a wide range of immigration reform issues, industries who hire foreign workers were sent more than one message.

"Those business groups in particular who lobby for high levels of immigration must make greater efforts not only to support immigration, but to support immigrants through English classes, naturalization, and civic education," Shirley Huftstedler, the commission's chairwoman said in a statement.

At the heart of the issue is whether companies should be allowed to employ skilled technicians, engineers, and innovators from other countries in place of U.S. workers. While the reductions in question would affect many industries across the American economy, employers such as semiconductor makers, software developers, and Internet firms are particularly affected because of chronic shortages of information technology workers.

High-tech companies say they would hire U.S. citizens to fill IT positions, except there often are no qualified candidates. A national Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) survey of large and midsized U.S. companies released earlier this year found there were 190,000 vacant IT jobs.

Furthermore, the American Electronics Association (AEA) says the accomplishments of a small number of foreign employees actually create new positions for citizens, citing that high-tech industry grew by more than 240,000 jobs between 1995 and 1996.

In addition, the industry says it's not cheap to look outside the country for educated talent. It costs about $10,000 to bring a legal immigrant to the United States for employment purposes, according the AEA. Such workers usually stay for six years under a H1B visa, for example.

"When our companies hire a legal immigrant, they are doing it because no one else in the world has that skill, talent, or expertise to help us create a new technology," said Brian Raymond, manager of domestic policy for the AEA, which represents 3,000 high-tech firms.

"When you're working with six-month to one-year product cycles, you can't wait for U.S. workers to catch on--you'll be left behind in the market. So legal immigrants are our quick fix," he added. "It may be a generation from now until the workforce is there. What can we do? I don't think anyone has the answer yet."

Still, some lawmakers argue that the industry is not making an investment in training U.S. citizens to fill its openings. In recent years, Silicon Valley and high-tech hotbeds across the country have made huge donations to wire schools to the Net and provide vocational training, for example. But the nation is still struggling with how to marry the needs of its workforce with public education and federal training programs.

The AEA is planning to hold an internal meeting in November to tackle how it can help the government understand the high-tech industries' personnel needs to stay competitive and remain an economic force.

The ITAA also is pulling together academia and industry for a meeting at the University of California at Berkeley in January to address the nation's scarce talent pool for information technology jobs.

The secretaries of the Commerce and Education departments plan to be there as well.

"We will examine the roots of the problem and create new education strategies to deal with the shortage of workers in America," said Lauren Brownstein, workforce education program manager for the ITAA. "This crisis represents thousands of missed opportunities for American students and workers."