Chicago—The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (www.ieeeusa.org) is laying down the gauntlet for Congress and industry groups over the number of temporary immigrants entering the U.S. Citing the high unemployment rates in electronic engineering, programming, and other professional categories, the group has fired the first shot in what might become a protracted debate over immigration and job security.
At issue will be whether the number of temporary visas that permit skilled workers to enter the U.S. for six years will drop from 195,000 to 65,000. In 1998, lobbyists convinced Congress to temporarily increase the cap on temporary visas to 110,000. During the dot-com/high tech boom in 2000, a temporary increase raised the quota to 195,000.
In September, that temporary increase will expire, dropping the cap back to its pre-1998 level. That's a number that engineering groups want. "We feel 65,000 is the right number," says John Steadman, president elect of the IEEE-USA. The Washington, DC-based group has been sharply critical of the program in recent months, and past president LeEarl Bryant recently marched in a small anti-H-1B demonstration (see page 37).
The big question in the technology field is whether corporations and the associations that represent them will push Congress for another temporary increase. To date, none have divulged plans. "We haven't decided, though our committee has met a couple times," »says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (www.itaa.org) inArlington, VA. The ITAA was the most outspoken lobbyist during the 2000 debate.
A Decrease is Likely
A spokesman for the AeA, another proponent of the increase in 2000, notes that given the current economic situation in high technology, it will be difficult to convince Congress that an increase is necessary. "The most likely outcome is that it will slip back to 65,000," says Tom Stohler, vice president of workforce policy at the AeA (www.aeanet.org), a Washington, DC-based group formerly called the American Electronics Association.
However, he noted that things could change if the economy and employment gain strength. Such hedging is what makes the IEEE-USA nervous. The IEEE-USA's latest estimate is that there were 120,000 electronic engineers looking for work in the fourth quarter.
If industry groups do ask for more than 65,000 visas, the IEEE-USA wants to be ready to make its voice heard early, avoiding a repeat of what happened in 2000. The ITAA, AeA, and others started lobbying Congress early on, steamrolling over a handful of engineering groups that started a late push to stop a lobbying movement. "We have a position statement and we are prepared to head to the hill if any legislation comes up," Steadman says.
The IEEE-USA will work in conjunction with other organizations "to get the word to Congress that a higher cap is not acceptable given the high unemployment figures for engineers," Steadman says.
However, some engineering organizations don't regard the H-1B issue with the same sense of urgency. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has declined to take a position, saying its members are split on the need for temporary workers. An American Association of Engineering Societies spokesperson says that any public opposition will depend on what else is going on with its member societies if and when a debate begins. The Society of Women Engineers is unlikely to join in.
However, the IEEE-USA does have allies. "We will be active in any debate," says Delano White, national chairman for the National Society of Black Engineers (Alexandria, VA). The American Engineering Association (Fort Worth, TX), and the Programmer's Guild (Summit, NJ) are already asking members to send letters to their Congressmen.
Regardless of who's involved, most observers feel that if a debate arises this year, the numbers won't be the only factor involved. It's not just that the economy has collapsed since the 2000 vote on H-1Bs.
After Sept. 11, "There's a new political environment," Stohler says. Immigration will have a strong national security aspect, and it will probably take a back seat to terrorism, Iraq, and the economy, he says.
"I would almost guarantee that anything pushed beyond 65,000 has conditions," Stohler says. Those concerns will include tighter background checks on immigrants and rules that address concern that these immigrants work for low wages, making them more attractive to cash-strapped companies than U.S. citizens.
"What's critical is that the program be properly enforced so employers can't use it to get low-cost labor," says the ITAA's Miller.
However, Miller discounts the contention that many H-1B workers earn substantially less than American engineers. "That is an urban legend," he says.
He says that the real issue is offshore competition. Compared to the number of engineers in countries with far lower wage structures, "The H-1Bs are just a drop in the bucket."
Engineering education is also expected to be a factor in any new bill. One justification for importing workers is that U.S. colleges aren't turning out enough engineering grads.
The NSBE will take a popular tack, asking Congress to invest in developing U.S. engineers by bolstering engineering education instead of turning offshore.
The IEEE-USA also hopes to ask Congress to alter its educational funding, making some of the money from H-1B fees available to older engineers who need to bring their skills up to date.
The need for improved education is one thing that both engineering and industry groups agree on. "The AeA has spent the last three years since the last H-1B debate working education," Stohler says.
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