Foreign-worker visa program under fire

Passports and visas

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: This is a big day in the U.S. labor market. Not in absolute terms. But certainly in political circles. Today's the day the government starts accepting applications for H1-B visas. There are just 85,000 of them to go around to what are called highly skilled foreign workers. The technology industry expects demand to widely outstrip supply. Even in the face of a weak economy and rising unemployment. Marketplace's Steve Henn explains.


STEVE HENN: Companies that hire highly educated, foreigner-born workers argue the H1-B visa program is one of the best ways to get this country's economy moving.

DEAN GARFIELD: American universities are educating the best minds, and it's critical that those minds stay in the United States.

Dean Garfield heads the Information Technology Industry Council. He says new industries like Health IT need innovators. Robert Hoffman at Oracle says foreign-born students dominate U.S. high-tech graduate programs.

ROBERT HOFFMAN: Roughly 70 percent of Ph.D. graduates in electrical engineering are foreign born.

But in the past few months companies that depend on H1-B visas have become lighting rods.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Some of these companies are nothing but pimps.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley says if companies can't find Americans to do a job, then it makes sense to hire from abroad. But he's convinced some firms abuse H1-B visas to lay off Americans and hire cheap foreign workers. And Grassley just co-sponsored a bill that put new restrictions on H1-B visas for bailed-out banks.

SEN. GRASSLEY: Don't tell me that when the banks are laying off tens of thousands of people that other banks that want to hire people, that they can't find qualified people out of the people who have been laid off.

Grassley writing another bill aimed at preventing fraud. But some in the tech business worry it could make the process of applying for these visas expensive and unworkable. That, they say, would push some talented U.S. graduates overseas.

People like Mexican Milton Esteva. He just earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Rice University on...

MILTON ESTEVA: Trying to find a numerical model to predict the mechanical and thermal properties of nano composites.

His research might make accidents at oil rigs less common. That could save his employer, BP America some money.

ESTEVA: But the most important thing is safety.

But if Esteva doesn't get a visa this year he's not too worried. His American education means jobs are waiting all over the globe.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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