Google: Foreign workers are key to our success

Recruiter for search giant calls on Congress to fix the visa shortage "crisis," says H-1B holders helped dream up revolutionary products.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
WASHINGTON--A Google executive on Wednesday credited the company's phenomenal success to the United States' openness to immigrants and called on Congress to let in more foreign workers.

Laszlo Bock, the search giant's vice president of people operations--Googlespeak for human resources--said the company may never have come into existence if co-founder Sergey Brin and his parents hadn't been able to flee the Soviet Union for the U.S. when he was 6 years old. Wednesday's testimony represents the first time that Google has testified before Congress on immigration issues.

"Within Google, there are countless examples of immigrants and nonimmigrant foreign workers playing a vital role in our company," Bock told the politicians at a House Judiciary oversight subcommittee hearing focused on business community perspectives on immigration law changes. The hearing took place as the Senate continues to debate a massive immigration bill that has proven worrisome to Silicon Valley companies.

Holders of H-1B visas, which allow foreigners with certain credentials to hold U.S. jobs for up to six years, compose about 8 percent of Google's U.S. workforce and represent 80 different countries, Bock said. He estimated that 75 percent of those hires have degrees from U.S. universities. Some led the development of Google News and Orkut, the company's social-networking site, he added.

"It is no stretch to say that without these employees, we might not be able to develop future revolutionary products like the next Gmail or the next Google Earth."
--Laszlo Bock, Google vice president of people operations

"It is no stretch to say that without these employees, we might not be able to develop future revolutionary products like the next Gmail or the next Google Earth," Bock said. He added that the influence is not limited to Google: Intel, eBay, Yahoo and Sun Microsystems are among the prominent Silicon Valley firms that were also founded by immigrants.

Bock himself said he fled communist Romania with his family as a child in the 1970s. His mother, who started a business consulting firm upon the family's move to Claremont, Calif., sat behind him at the hearing and, after she was publicly introduced, pulled out a handkerchief to dab her eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses.

Because of a current shortage in H-1B visas, Google has ultimately been forced to deny jobs to more than 70 qualified foreign candidates in the last year, Bock said. Echoing the stance of large high-tech companies like Microsoft, he urged Congress to enact "significant" increases to the annual cap, which currently numbers 65,000 but can grow by tens of thousands more when various exemptions are taken into account.

The Google executive also asked Congress to take actions to alleviate the significant backlog in awarding green cards, which grant permanent residency. The lack of rapid assurance that foreign-born employees on temporary visas can remain on U.S. company payrolls forces "tens of thousands of highly trained professionals into legal and professional limbo for years."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who counts Google in her Silicon Valley constituency, said she was sympathetic to those requests. Particularly in the high-tech sector, "without consistent, simple access to the best and brightest minds in the world, America will likely face stiffer competition from abroad," the subcommittee chairwoman said at the hearing.

Not everyone was so eager to make changes without further assurances. A handful of Democrats questioned whether Google has been doing enough to recruit qualified Americans, particularly blacks. Bock admitted Google would like to boost the number of blacks on its payroll, but he said the company offers scholarships in partnership with the United Negro College Fund and has done recruitment on the campuses of historically black colleges.

Before Congress moves forward with an overhaul of immigration law along the lines of Bock's requests, politicians need to focus on what to do about the some 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country, said subcommittee ranking member Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). He said he supported a point system aimed at determining who is most qualified to enter the country legally.

"Could Google produce the software that would identify for us the very top 1 million people on the globe who would want to apply to come to the United States who could give the best enhancement to our country here?" King asked the company executive.

"It's an interesting question," Bock responded. "I'm sure we'd have lots of people who would want to tackle that problem in their 20 percent time."