Should foreign workers get the boot when Americans hurt?

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Friday August 17 10:15 AM EDT

Should foreign workers get the boot when Americans hurt?

By David Coursey, AnchorDesk

Daily News

The H-1B visa program, which has been widely used by technology companies to staff their research and development labs, has always been controversial. But lately it's gone critical, as what we euphemistically refer to as a "pause" in the economy has unleashed a wave of layoffs at high-tech companies that only 18 months ago couldn't hire quickly enough, whether at home or overseas.

Naturally, some of those being laid off are H-1B workers, who now live in fear of deportation. Others are U.S. citizens, who question why guest workers are allowed to stay when American citizens are losing their jobs.

I'M THINKING ABOUT THIS today after reading a special report ZDNet News created to explain the issues surrounding the H-1B program. My conclusion: there are no easy answers, and save for the racists and utter isolationists, everyone seems to have some validity in their points.

My colleague, Patrick Houston, is closer to immigrant blood than I am and has some strong feelings on these issues. We've been debating this around the office and, so far, no real consensus has emerged.

Growing up in 1960s Texas, it never occurred to me that someday I'd have friends named Vinod, Srivats, and Prakesh. Those are just some of my Indian pals--there are also some Pakistanis, many East Asians, a couple of Persians (don't call them Iranians), and a few Russians in my Outlook address book. All of these people work in technology companies, and each holds an important job. Almost all are first-generation immigrants, and I am glad all of them are here, rather than working in some other country.

ONE OF THESE FRIENDS, a CTO of a Silicon Valley semiconductor company, has just become a United States citizen. He's from India. His wife is also Indian and is working on her citizenship, too. She works for an investment-banking firm. He now requires a visa to visit his homeland. They own a house not far from the house I rent and are talking about buying his-and-hers BMWs. This is to say they do just fine, thank you.

They are nice people, and I like them, just as I like many other Indian and Asian and European and Russian and, well, you get the idea, people I've met here in the Valley. However, from time to time, I wonder: Is immigration such a good thing? Certainly, it is for someone--but whom? And what is its impact on the world at large?

At one level, I am thrilled and honored that people from all around the world want to hitch their fortunes to an American star. Through legal immigration, we try to pick the best and the brightest of these American wannabes and meet some humanitarian goals along the way.

THE FOUNDERS/CO-FOUNDERS of Intel, Sun, and many other important companies arrived here from foreign shores. I know a Nobel laureate who came to the United States when his family fled Nazi terror before the outbreak of World War II. You cannot overestimate, even today, what immigration has brought to this country.

Yes, immigration has made us what we are. However, that can be said about many other things, and each has to be balanced off the others. I am not sure how well we have managed to do that.

I am convinced that H-1B visas--which have brought so many engineers and other professionals to the U.S. from overseas--have helped to hide the magnitude of the failure of the American educational system. I am not talking about an isolated failure by students and teachers, but of a systemic failure involving us all.

WE SEEM TO HAVE ASKED OURSELVES, "Why train our own people--especially those who seem to lack the motivation--when the world is filled with well-educated people who will crawl over one another for the chance to work here?" And we decided it was easier to buy than to build.

Finding Indian or other foreign engineering and professional talent is quicker, easier, and less expensive than creating new engineers at home.

Because American business has been successful importing the talent it needs, our power elite has given only lip service to the failure of American public education. Businesses' need for young minds should have been the single biggest factor driving education reform, but it hasn't worked out that way.

WE NEED TO BALANCE the economic expediency of importing talent against the promise of opportunity made first to the people born here. Sometimes I think we've lost two generations of talented young people because it was easier to say "yes" to outsiders.

Then there is the effect of immigration on the countries these people abandon in order to come here. Several Indian friends, for example, say their homeland is such a basket case economically that families consider having a son or daughter working in the U.S. as a sort of badge of honor. Even if their country couldn't provide enough opportunity to make them a success, the United States could.

I am not sure how to respond to that beyond saying "thanks" for sending us all those bright young people. Yet I am concerned that if a country's best and brightest are leaving home, who will be left to solve the problems they left behind?

AND WHILE IT IS CLEARLY in my American self-interest to make my country as successful as possible--by "stealing" everyone else's talent, if that's what I need to do--does this create more world poverty and instability over the long haul? That's not a question I can answer, only a concern I haven't resolved.

I think this means I am for more H-1B participants ending up back in their home countries, where I hope they will create new businesses of their own. Yet those new companies would compete with American businesses, so why not just keep the entrepreneurs here rather than sending them home? This circular logic--balancing self-interest with enlightened self-interest--is what makes the H-1B debate so frustrating.

When I look at immigration on an individual basis, I am amazed at the contributions these people--many of them H-1B participants--have made. How could we have lived without them? How much less competitive would we be? What innovations won't happen if they are sent home? But what happens if they all become citizens (or permanent residents) and stay forever?

Yet, when I look at the larger numbers--hundreds of thousands of people--and the probability that bringing in foreign talent makes it easier to ignore the potential, but untrained, talent that's already here, I worry about the future.

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