Visa plan lets state hire foreign workers

Rebuttal from Norm Matloff:

The enclosed article emphasizes that the H-1Bs are being paid the prevailing wage. That may be untrue or misleading. It may be untrue, because the state wage scale may not take into account degree levels or skill sets. It may be misleading, because as I have pointed out frequently (and was stated by a CEO in Computerworld last week), for many employers the attraction of hiring H-1Bs is having docile workers; presumably this is even more of an attraction in civil service settings, where it is almost impossible to fire someone and thus workers can afford more to have (in the words of that CEO)  “attitudes.”

I am also not impressed by the one H-1B’s statement that he was the best candidate of the 12 interviewed for the job. This may have again been a special-skills issue, or (this is highly commonplace) he may have been of the same ethnicity as the boss.

But one thing is clear: If the state gets away with this, it will go down as a classic example of how passivity and aversion to activism among U.S. tech workers allow employers and Congress to engage in outrageous behavior.

Norm


Visa plan lets state hire foreign workers

06/02/02

Ted Wendling
Plain Dealer Bureau

Columbus

- The state is hiring foreign technology workers at the expense of out-of-work domestic programmers by using a controversial visa program that has flooded the United States with computer specialists.

The so-called H-1B visa program has been widely used by large technology firms such as Oracle and Intel but rarely by public agencies because the visas cost employers thousands of dollars in application and legal fees.

The application fee alone recently increased from $500 to $1,000 per employee. In addition, Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery is paying a Columbus law firm tens of thousands of dollars for legal work for H-1B workers.

In the past two years, the state has paid the firm, Perez & Morris, about $70,000 for legal services pertaining to the immigration status of employees of state agencies and state universities and colleges. About half of that work was H-1B-related, according to Montgomery’s spokesman, Joe Case.

The use of tax dollars to pay those fees has angered unemployed programmers and labor union officials, who contend that public money should not be used to hire foreign labor when a large number of qualified Americans are looking for work. Critics say the expenditure is particularly galling when Ohio is struggling to close a $1.75 billion budget deficit.

“From a moral and ethical perspective, this bothers me,” said Paul Hanrahan, an unemployed programmer from Lakewood and regional director of the Programmers Guild, a New Jersey organization opposed to the H-1B program. “These are foreign nationals.

They have no obligation to serve in the United States Army during time of war, and yet our tax dollars are being used to support them.”

A Plain Dealer survey found that at least eight state agencies have hired a total of 22 workers under the H-1B program. Most arrive from India and the Pacific Rim.

They include Sivakumar Raju, a programmer from India who works for the Department of Mental Health. Originally sponsored by a private technology firm that assigned him to work as a mental health contract employee, he was hired by the state in July 2000, requiring the department to pay a new application fee.

Raju, 31, said he earned his $48,000-a-year state job by being the best candidate.

“There were 12 people, along with me, contesting for the same job,” he said. “We took a test and interview and all those things, and it happened to be me that stood first, so they hired me. It’s not like there were some other people who could do the job or somebody who could do it better than me.”

The largest number of H-1B hires – eight – has occurred at the Department of Job & Family Services, where Director Tom Hayes has drawn accolades for saving money and reducing his agency’s dependence on high-priced technology contractors by replacing about 225 consultants with state staff. Many of the consultants were foreign workers who came to the United States on H-1B visas. Hayes estimates a savings of $100,000 for every contractor who is replaced with a state worker.

But coupled with the dot-com crash and a slumping economy that has seen the unemployment rate for computer programmers soar to nearly 6 percent, the layoffs placed many unemployed H-1B workers in direct competition with domestic programmers. Hayes said he anguished over the decision but ultimately chose to hire some of the most-qualified foreign contractors.

The department actually tried to hire more – a total of 19 – but was forced to rescind the offers in March after running afoul of federal visa regulations.

“We here believe in the American dream . . . but we can’t say that we have to hire people who are American citizens,” Hayes said. “We’re not bringing in people from other countries for these positions; they are people who are already here. We’re also not hiring these people to the exclusion of others. We’re hiring these people and others.”

That’s not good enough for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, Ohio’s largest public employees union, even though the foreign workers become union members.

“Our position is that we believe the state has an obligation to grow their own work force, to provide people with the training they need to move into those positions,” OCSEA spokeswoman Sharon Ralph said. “It would be one thing if the agency was in a position where there weren’t enough IT professionals available, but they aren’t.”

The H-1B program was launched in 1992 at the request of the computer industry to quell fears that Y2K and a programmer shortage would spawn a massive technology collapse. It allows up to 195,000 foreigners annually to enter the United States for up to six years to work “in a specialty occupation or as a fashion model of distinguished merit or ability.” Applicants must have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.

The program is controversial and has been subjected to a torrent of criticism from people who contend that it provides cheap labor to private employers who are willing to skirt prevailing-wage laws. Critics also say it turns foreign workers into indentured servants who are loath to complain about wages or working conditions for fear that their employers will decide not to sponsor them for green cards, a precursor to U.S. citizenship.

All of the state workers with H-1B visas are making union-scale wages. At Job & Family Services, the eight H-1B employees actually are being paid above scale under a state law that allows the director to offer a higher salary to new employees who have “qualifications that . . . are determined by the director to be exceptional.” Some domestic programmers have been hired at the higher range, too.

Employers like the H-1B program because it does not require them to demonstrate a shortage of qualified American workers. However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s $1,000 application fee finances a $138 million training program that is intended to reduce the reliance on temporary foreign workers.

The training program, operated by the U.S. Department of Labor, has been an abject failure.

“Unfortunately, DOL’s . . . H-1B training program . . . never has filled and has no prospect of filling, these labor shortages,” says a Bush administration budget summary.

“At times, funds wind up training workers for decidedly low-tech jobs. One grant financed training for cable installers; another trained licensed practical nurses, while a third was open only to union members in the entertainment industry.”

“I don’t know of any real training program,” agreed David Leopold, a Cleveland immigration lawyer who represents H-1B applicants.

The $1,000 application fee is “basically a penalty for hiring an alien,” he said.

The H-1B program also has been prone to shocking cases of fraud.

Last June, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a wealthy restaurateur and landlord in Berkeley, Calif., was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of using H-1B visas to smuggle teenage girls from India into the United States to work in a Bay Area prostitution ring. Reddy used his son’s Berkeley software company to sponsor many of the girls.

Authorities were alerted to the ring after one of the girls, 17-year-old Chanti Prattipati, and her unborn child died from a carbon monoxide leak in 1999 in one of Reddy’s 1,100 rental units.

In another case, Deep Sai Consulting Inc. of Lawrenceville, Ga., and its president, Syamala Kaqmineni, were convicted in November 1999 of operating what prosecutors called “a white-collar alien smuggling ring” by using H-1B visas to import ineligible computer programmers from India.

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