- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

SANTA CLARA, Calif. Thousands of technical visas are going begging today, less than a year after high-tech companies asked for massive increases in the number of such limited-time entry permits, describing them as essential for their business survival in a tight labor market.

The technology lobby won, and Congress upped the limit on H-1B visas from 115,000 to 195,000 per year through 2003, even though labor unions and other analysts claimed H-1B workers were paid lower wages than Americans with the same skills and their presence often left qualified U.S. citizens jobless.

The time-limited visas supposedly are granted only to immigrants with unique skills needed by American companies.

As they campaigned for the increase, formerly high-flying companies such as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and other Silicon Valley kingpins said they couldn´t fill their orders without the foreign workers, whose permits are good for six years.

These firms and their executives contributed millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians from George W. Bush and Al Gore to Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Now those arguments are largely moot. The federal Immigration and Naturalization Service reported this spring that as of April 1, just 72,000 H-1B visas had been issued since the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1. That is a pace slightly slower than last year, and means that many of the once-coveted visas will go unfilled this year.

The pace has been even slower since the downturn in high-tech and communication stocks and the demise of many dot-com companies that began last winter. The INS reported that only 16,000 new H-1B workers came to the United States in February, just half the 32,000 who arrived in the same month of 2000.

Now it appears that not only will the visas go begging, but so may some of the workers who used them to enter this country.

No one knows just how many H-1B immigrants have lost their jobs in the slump of technology and Internet companies. "We´re trying to find a way to figure out how many have been displaced," said Eyleen Schmidt, spokeswoman for the INS.

Even though no specific figures exist, bet that the number is high.

The old rule of last-hired, first-fired now applies to H-1B visa holders as much as it ever did to anyone else.

When Cisco´s stock slid and the company announced this spring it would dismiss 2,500 to 3,000 temporary and contract workers, spokesman Kent Jenkins Jr. said, "It´s likely that will involve H-1B workers." When an official San Francisco report predicted that 80 percent of that city´s myriad dot-com companies would fail and disappear before year´s end, city officials said that meant thousands of H-1B jobs also were going down the tubes.

It´s not only jobs that are disappearing. Even where jobs remain, money has dried up. One Santa Clara H-1B labor contracting firm that provides immigrant consultants to many companies reported that "Java (a computer operating system) developers used to float in the marketplace at $65 to $75 per hour, but right now the market is $40." Overall, the firm said, wages paid to H-1B workers have dropped 25 percent to 50 percent.

Idled workers also have piled up. The Silicon Valley labor contracting firm CompuWizards reported this month that while it normally has between 10 and 12 persons of its 100-member force idle for short periods between contracts, that number is now above 25 and climbing.

H-1B workers legally have just 10 days after losing one job to find another. If they can´t get their visas transferred to a new company within that time, they are supposed to go back home. They are not eligible for either unemployment or welfare benefits. If they stay here after technically losing their visas when the 10-day limit expires, they risk being barred from the United States for 10 years. But no one is forcing them to leave. Enforcement of such penalties usually is up to individual case workers.

Some skilled immigrants are indeed heading home, if only because they can´t afford to stay when they are not being paid. Others are receiving illegal under-the-table payments from labor contractors who hope they will be available when and if the technology job market once again turns prosperous.

Such payments usually amount to no more than $1,000 per month, not exactly enough to buy and fuel the fancy cars and luxury apartments many highly skilled workers envisioned before coming to California.

Says California State University, Northridge, economist Bernard Kurtzer: "It´s all part of the boom-bust cycles that have long been a feature of California life. The real victims here are not corporate executives whose stock options have turned worthless, but workers who never figured they´d quickly become illegal immigrants and be forced to live six or eight to a one-bedroom apartment."

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