Thursday, November 3, 2005

Local universities and technology alliances have thrown their support behind federal legislation that would make it easier to bring in highly skilled teachers and workers from India and China.

A Senate budget bill on the floor Monday included provisions that would exempt spouses and children of highly skilled immigrant workers from counting toward the annual 140,000 cap on green cards, allowing the government to issue employment-based visas to 90,000 more workers than in the past.

The measure would help fill the demand for technology workers and reduce the backlog of applications from India and China, where those now being accepted applied at least four years ago.

“Companies [and] universities are very concerned about our ability to compete globally,” said Sandy Boyd, vice president of the District-based National Association of Manufacturers and chairwoman of Compete America, a pro-legal, employment-based immigration coalition. “Our ability to innovate and create jobs is really dependent on … developing good American talent, and it also means having access to the world’s talent.”

Many technology companies in the region find it difficult to recruit Americans from local universities because there are 20 percent fewer engineering majors in the United States than 20 years ago, according to Compete America.

At U.S. engineering colleges, foreign nationals earn more than half of the master’s degrees in science, engineering and technology and about two-thirds of the doctorates, the coalition said. China graduates nearly four times as many engineers as the United States.

“So [American employers are] either leaving the positions unfilled or they’re not taking the best talent they can find,” said Jeff Lande, senior vice president of the Arlington-based Information Technology Association of America.

Part of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s budget reconciliation package, the provisions also seek to increase the fee on employment-based visas by $500 each, raising $300 million in federal revenue, and to increase the H-1B temporary visa cap from 65,000 to 95,000. The legislation would “recapture” unused green cards and temporary visas previously approved by Congress.

The Senate yesterday voted down a move by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, to strip from the budget bill the increased visas caps and to raise by $1,500 the fee of L-1 visas, which allow U.S. and foreign companies to swap management staff between branch offices.

Among the companies that support Compete America’s push for access to foreign nationals — many of whom already reside in the United States — are Microsoft Corp, Intel Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc.

George Washington University is one of several local universities that said they welcome the opportunity to readily hire foreign professors and researchers.

“Our business is to provide a world-class education to our students, and in order to be successful in that mission, we need to be able to attract and retain highly skilled persons, some of whom come from outside the U.S.,” said Marie Rudolph, the university’s director of government, international and corporate affairs.

Deborah Meyers, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said the influx of foreign workers would not pose competition for most American workers or day laborers in the region who migrate to the U.S. in search of construction jobs.

“These are positions that require extensive education [and] persons with extraordinary ability, persons with advanced degrees,” Ms. Meyers said. “The employers have to make an attestation with the [U.S.] Labor Department that they have tried to recruit domestically for these positions. … So there are some measures in place to protect domestic workers already, and those would remain.”

Alan Merten, president of George Mason University and former chairman of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2001 study “Building a Workforce for the Information Economy,” said these foreign workers likely would improve the economy by starting companies and creating jobs for American technology workers.

However, Mr. Merten warned that the workers eventually might take their skills back to their native countries.

He said America should focus on cultivating its own talent or find ways to retain foreign workers.

Mr. Merten also said the influx of workers would hold down wages to some degree.

“Anytime you increase supply, you hold down wages,” he said. “But we did not find five years ago that it had a significant impact on wages at all.”

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