Tech seeing red over green-card proposal

Lobbying groups press Congress to rework an immigration bill that could add uncertainty to the task of hiring foreigners.

Silicon Valley companies would be forced to compete with fast food joints, shops at the mall and truck-driving outfits for the same pool of legalized foreign hires under a controversial proposal that the U.S. Senate is debating this week.

The prospect of unpredictable competition for a fixed number of immigrant visas based on an applicant's educational background and work history, which would replace the current employer-sponsored green card system, is drawing stiff opposition from technology lobbying groups that are pressing senators to preserve the current system.

Groups like Compete America, an alliance mostly composed of high-tech trade associations and individual companies, say the practice would chip away at the predictability of the current process for recruiting and hiring foreigners and leave too much control over the talent-screening process in the government's hands. The current proposal would hand out visas based on a point system that grades factors like education levels, family ties, English prowess and whether an occupation is considered "in-demand."

"The best the government can hope to do is select a pool of generically potentially qualified candidates, whereas a company knowing exactly what it needs, exactly what skills and exactly what kind of individual can best deliver is going to be far better able to make the right match," Lowell Sachs, Sun Microsystems' senior manager for federal government affairs, said in a telephone interview. Sun is one of the core members of Compete America.

In a change that would be akin to long-standing systems in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, the proposed merit-based system would eventually allocate about 380,000 green cards each year to foreigners with the highest scores--up to 100 points--based on certain criteria. The bill is called the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (PDF).

How the point system works

Let's say a 40-year-old doctor from Germany with 10 years of work experience and midlevel English skills wants to emigrate to the United States, where his sister is a legal permanent resident. Out of 100 possible points, his score would be:

20 -- Specialty Occupation
20 -- Masters degree
8 -- "STEM" education
10 -- Midlevel English skills
4 -- Sibling of U.S. legal permanent resident

Total: 62 points

Supporters of the idea, including the Bush administration and key Senate Democrats like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), say the overhaul is necessary in order to ensure that both "high-skill" and "low-skill" workers have a chance at obtaining permanent residency in the United States and to reward well-educated, English-speaking foreigners capable of working in specialty and high-demand fields.

The system works through simple addition, with up to 100 points allocated for categories such as occupation type and language fluency. An example: someone with a master's degree would automatically receive 20 points; people with English fluency would receive 15; and people in occupations found to have grown the largest amount in the past decade by the Department of Labor would receive 16 points. (The most recent survey, which offered projections between 2004 and 2014, ran the gamut, including computer scientists, registered nurses, food preparers and waiters, janitors and maids, retail salespeople, receptionists, office clerks and truck drivers.)

What that means is a brilliant 40-year-old computer programmer who a company like Google or Apple views as crucial to the success of a forthcoming product could easily score less than a new nursing school graduate with zero work experience (younger workers get an extra three points). That's even more likely to happen if the programmer isn't proficient in English and the nurse is (an extra 15 points), or if the programmer doesn't have formal education in a science, technology, engineering or math field (which could potentially add an extra eight points to the nurse's score).

Uncertainty over "high demand" jobs
Some immigration experts said it's not entirely clear whether the system proposed by the Senate bill would do more to harm or help technology employers.

After all, the system would award bonus points to foreigners who have worked in science, technology, engineering or math occupations in the United States for at least one year and to those seeking occupations in designated high-demand fields, which include computer software engineering and systems analysis.

"In actual use, probably most of the jobs for which companies are hiring high-tech workers and most of the workers would probably score high enough," said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, and commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration.

Still, she added: "If the person they want doesn't score high enough, they would not be able to reach the person, even though that is who they have identified and selected to fill a particular job. It adds another layer of complexity and procedure, and most important, it adds uncertainty. Employers don't like that."

Another worry is that the government could change its mind about the definition of "specialty" (worth 20 points) or "in-demand" (worth 16 points) occupations. Because it's unclear which occupations will fall into those categories if and when the law takes effect, it's a "much bigger wild card than anyone is comfortable with," said Bob Sakaniwa, associate director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which is part of Compete America and does not support the Senate bill as written.

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