Technology

The High Barriers Facing Foreign Workers


U.S. companies want freer entry for skilled and unskilled labor, but relaxing the rules won't be a pressing concern for Obama

What Business Wants

From technology giants like Microsoft (MSFT) to agricultural employers such as New York State's Torrey Farms, businesses tend to have a pretty straightforward take on immigration policy: If workers from other countries want to come to the U.S., government should let them in. This is a controversial stance among Americans who fear losing their jobs. But companies say the economy overall will be stronger with more workers, whether they're designing software, milking cows, or performing other tasks that Americans can't or won't do.

Technology companies have pushed for years to let in more skilled workers. The easiest place to start, they say, is by granting green cards for permanent residence to students from overseas who get advanced degrees at U. S. universities, especially in fields such as science, math, and engineering. Today, these students need to apply for residence along with everyone else, and many can't get the papers to stay. "Over half of our PhDs are foreign-born students, and we won't even give them a green card," says William D. Watkins, chief executive of storage equipment maker Seagate Technology (STX). "So we educate them at our universities, which are the best in the world, and then we send them back home. It's crazy."

Tech companies would like to see more experienced workers from overseas, too, both on a temporary and permanent basis. Under the current system, the number of high-skill workers allowed in each year on temporary work visas is capped at 65,000 (with a further 20,000 for those with advanced degrees). Compete America, a lobbying group representing Intel (INTC), Google (GOOG), Oracle (ORCL), and others, wants the cap increased to at least 115,000. Tech companies have many Washington supporters on the issue, but their efforts have been turned back by critics who say the work visa program is subject to misuse and fraud.

Waiting Game

Technology companies also want additional green cards for skilled workers from abroad. The number of so-called "employment-based green cards" is capped at 140,000 per year now, and only 7% of those, or 9,800, can go to workers from any one country. That cap has had the affect of making immigrants from populous countries such as India and China wait five or more years for their green cards, even after the U. S. government decides to approve their applications.

Compete America would like the overall green card cap to be raised and the 7% restriction for each country to be lifted. In addition, the group has asked for green cards that went unused in years past to be reauthorized so they could be issued in the future. This "green-card recapture" would free up 200,000 to 300,000 green cards for current immigrants. James Goodnight, CEO and founder of Cary (N.C.)-based software maker SAS, says the U. S. risks losing talented workers to Canada and Europe if it doesn't adopt more accommodating policies. "They have a policy of welcoming foreign people with PhDs and highly trained workers, whereas for some reason our country doesn't want them anymore," says Goodnight.

The health-care industry certainly wants more nurses. Hospitals and other business say there is a severe shortage of nurses (BusinessWeek.com, 8/28/07) in the U. S., with an estimated 125,000 unfilled positions nationwide for registered nurses. While about a third of the RNs joining the U.S. workforce each year were born in other countries, industry advocates say that's not enough. RNs come to the U.S. on green cards and are also subject to the 9,800 per-country green card cap. "We have a lot of demand [from hospitals] for nurses that we cannot fill," says Marcia R. Faller, a vice-president at ANM Healthcare in San Diego, a health-care staffing firm that employs 6,500 RNs. Faller, along with the American Hospital Assn., has been pushing for legislation that would exempt nurses from the employment-based green card cap for three years. Longer term, the industry wants the Labor Dept. to eliminate green card caps for professions it deems critically short of workers.

Companies with lower-skill workers are less concerned about new immigrants than with the workers who are already here. In industries such as agriculture, meatpacking, and hospitality, many businesses depend on the illegal immigrants in the U. S., who are estimated to number more than 10 million. Business owners would like to see political reforms that would give these immigrants a path to citizenship, and at the same time a change in policy so that immigration authorities back off on the raids of companies that use low-skilled workers. "Congress and the new Administration have to decide where they want our food to come from," says Maureen Torrey, owner of Torrey Farms, a vegetable and dairy operations in Elba, N.Y. "We either import our food or import our workers."

Torrey, along with the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, is backing a bill called AgJobs that would expand the H-2A guest worker program for agricultural workers. Torrey has started a Web site, Saveusfarms.org, to enlist more farms and supporters in the cause. Meanwhile, businesses in industries from meatpacking to retail to restaurants are backing bills to raise caps for H-2B visas for low-skilled nonagricultural workers.

What Business Will Get

The reality is that Obama isn't going to take on immigration any time soon. He simply can't. The economy, the war in Iraq, energy policy, and health care are all more pressing and will take up the time and energy of the new Administration during its early days.

Even after that, don't count on major breakthroughs. Immigration is an issue that doesn't divide neatly along party lines. Plenty of Democrats oppose immigration reforms that let in more workers from abroad or grant citizenship to people who have come to the U. S. illegally. There's almost no chance Democrats will pass broad legislation while the economy is weak. "As long as economic growth is off the table, [comprehensive] immigration reform is off the table," says Craig Regelbrugge, spokesman for the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC), a lobbying group that supports more low-skilled immigration.

It may well be 2010 before there's any movement on immigration policy, and, even then the changes are likely to be incremental. The Obama Administration may push for more green cards for foreign graduates of U. S. universities in math, science, and other advanced degrees. It could also loosen up the rules for green cards overall and temporary work visas. But reform advocates recognize that, given all the other urgent issues, they face a long wait. "There is limited space on the legislative agenda, and immigration isn't at the top now," says Sheri Steisel, an attorney for the National Council of State Legislatures.

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