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U.S. Tech Workers Fight Back


The Programmers Guild is issuing a rebuttal following calls for unlimited green cards for some foreign workers. Can Congress reach a compromise?

As employers and professional groups ask Congress to speed up immigration reform for high-skilled workers, U.S. tech workers are fighting back.

The latest clash erupted after the U.S. chapter of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Semiconductor Industry Assn. (SIA) sent a letter to congressional leaders Oct. 11 calling for any foreign student with at least a bachelor's degree in technology or science to be granted permanent residency if they get a job offer. The letter outraged U.S. tech workers who feel displaced both by immigration programs and outsourcing (BusinessWeek.com, 10/10/07). In response, the Programmers Guild, which represents 1,500 technical and professional workers, has drafted its own letter to congressional leaders, warning that such a policy would further disadvantage American workers.

"We deem this [proposal] a disaster," reads the letter, which was signed by several hundred U.S. tech workers and slated to be sent out late on Oct. 15. "The Programmers Guild advocates that Americans should have preference for American jobs, and that U.S. jobs should only be filled by foreigners when no qualified Americans are available," reads the letter.

An Indecent Proposal?

The clash comes as Congress is beginning to contemplate reform proposals for skilled workers from overseas (BusinessWeek.com, 9/11/07). Efforts to overhaul immigration laws (BusinessWeek.com, 6/8/07) for both high- and low-skill workers foundered over the summer. But congressional leaders believe that laws rewritten for a narrower group of workers from abroad may be easier to pass, especially because they would sidestep the politically sensitive question of whether to grant citizenship to the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the country.

The proposal from the IEEE-USA and the SIA has not reached Congress in the form of a bill. But U.S. tech worker advocates are trying to dissuade members of Congress in advance. The Guild's main issues with the proposal: It would not require employers to try to hire Americans first, and it could swamp the market with tens of thousands of additional workers, because it would require only foreign workers to hold bachelors' degrees to compete with Americans. "This proposal would throw supply and demand of the labor market out of whack," says Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild. "We are not opposed to all efforts for green-card expansion, but giving green cards to graduates will flood the job market with more workers and handicap U.S. workers."

Internal Strife at the IEEE

The issue is already creating divisions within the IEEE. Founded in 1963, the group now has 360,000 members, making it the largest organization for technical professionals in the world. The IEEE-USA, the largest country group, with 200,000 members, historically has stayed out of the political crossfire since its members can be on the opposite sides of a debate. The group's unusual letter to Congress is already drawing fire. "I will not be renewing my IEEE membership because of this misguided endorsement," says Chuck Hedrick, a software engineer in Escondido, Calif., who signed the Programmers Guild letter. "IEEE has become a political puppet."

Hedrick isn't the only one who feels betrayed by the leadership of the engineering organization. "I am outraged that IEEE-USA would side with advocates of cheap labor and sell out those they allegedly represent with this ill-considered green-card scheme," says Gerard Wevers, an electronic engineer in Reno, Nev.

John Meredith, president of IEEE-USA, says that allowing more overseas workers will actually keep wages higher in the U.S., unlike the H-1B visa program, which keeps workers tethered to employers in one position. "I'm not denying we are going to have push-back; a lot of people have been hurt with layoffs," says Meredith. "But a lot of the problems are caused by the temporary guest worker program. We would like to see a more permanent workforce so that U.S. and overseas workers will be on a level playing field."

Taking It to the Hill

Both the IEEE-USA and the Programmers Guild addressed their letters to congressional leaders including Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House subcommittee on immigration. Lofgren says she and the subcommittee plan to meet with the IEEE later this week to discuss the proposal. "It's a very serious proposal," says Lofgren. "The IEEE lays out in stark terms that there is an obvious shortage of qualified U.S. graduates, and it only makes sense to allow exceptional people the chance to stay here and innovate instead of forcing them back to form startups in other countries."

Lofgren says that U.S. workers will benefit from reform. "We are taking a look at the whole program, permanent and temporary, to make sure interests of American workers are well protected," she says.

Herbst is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York .

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