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By Jack Ganssle

H1-B

Published 6/20/2003

At age 20 I found myself in Australia for the first time. Many sights, sounds and amazing experiences from that trip remain locked in my memory even now, 30 years later. But the biggest impression that amazing country left was how so many people of so many ethnicities lived and worked in relative peace. I'd come from the USA, the place I'd been taught was the "great melting pot" of the world. Yet Australia appeared far more diverse.

My great-grandparents arrived in the USA in the 1880s, young, broke, and with few marketable skills. Like millions of others who poured across these borders then they were absorbed and changed by their new home. Their children achieved a 6th grade education; the next generation, my parents, earned college degrees and built a bit of middle-class success.

America's melting pot worked. Over the course of a couple of generations it morphed poor, non-English-speaking immigrants into the middle class backbone of the country.

Today many of those entrenched Americans, many of them highly-educated hardware and software designers, are out of work. Techies are the hardest-hit; the Department of Labor reported that first quarter unemployment for EEs was 7%, far above the national average of 5.8%. To my great surprise neither the war on terrorism nor the 2nd Gulf War have had much impact on hiring.

What happened to the jobs? Surely the stumbling economy is at least partly to blame. Could the H1-B program be another factor? There's no doubt, based on the many, many emails I get from disgruntled American workers, that EEs and firmware folk believe this to be the case. Many engineers think that these visas are being used simply to reduce labor costs. If true, the law is a horrible disservice to the country's citizens.

On October 17, 2000, President Clinton signed the "American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act" which was strongly supported by the US high-tech industry. The bill included a big increase in the number of H1-B visas available every year, from 107,500 to 195,000. Pending cases from fiscal year 2000 were to be counted in the 2000 quota, so 195,000 new visas became immediately available for fiscal years 2001 to 2003. H-1B workers are admitted to the United States for three years, which may be extended to six. The H-1B category is intended primarily for "professional" workers like programmers, engineers, teachers, doctors, and physical therapists.

The employer must file a form with the Department of Labor in which they promise to pay the prevailing wage to the H-1B employee, and to pay the H-1B employee at least as much as U.S. workers doing the same job. Though the law specifically forbids using H1-B workers to either displace American employees or to undercut their salaries, an awful lot of indigenous workers feel they're being edged out by immigrants willing to work cheaper.

The law made a lot of sense when there were more openings than available employees. Today the converse is true yet H1-Bs are still in full swing. Is corporate America is replacing our local work force with inexpensive foreigners?

It's just plain wrong to replace our skilled - and admittedly expensive - workers with cheaper imports. If the H1-B program is having this effect, it should be terminated immediately.

Worse is that the visa holders are expected to leave - the H1-B is a 3 to 6 year permit only. They come and then they go. There's no melting pot that embraces these smart folks and helps them become part of the national culture. H1-Bs mirror the agricultural industry, creating waves of migrant workers.

Where's the long-term benefit to the country?