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By Nick Wakeman

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Time to reform H-1B

Like many office phones, mine has a red light that blinks when I have voicemail. At times I hate that blinking red light.

Tuesday morning it was blinking when I got to work. The voice on the message was calm and steady, but a little off-kilter, at least that was my first reaction.

The man didn't leave his name, but he was objecting to our coverage of lobbying efforts to raise the limit on the number of H-1B visas.

He said that the shortage of American tech workers is a lie and that the H-1B program is nothing more than a tool to drive down wages and import cheap overseas workers, who become nothing more than slaves to the companies they work for. While the program is called the Non-Immigrant Worker Visa program, that too is a lie, according to this caller. He claimed that the only H-1B visa holder to leave the United States, out of the hundreds of thousands, is a guy who killed his girl and was deported.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose the raising of the limit. What bothers me about the immigration debate is the tone of hysteria that rings through the comments of many of those who want to greatly restrict the flow of immigrants to the United States. Lou Dobbs, you know who you are.

I was going to make this blog entry my own rant about those who oppose immigration. I'm the son of an immigrant and I believe that a liberal immigration policy is important to our country's future.

But before I went on my rant, Alice Lipowicz (our reporter who wrote the story and who received numerous e-mails about it) reminded me that there are reasonable voices opposing H-1B and she pointed me toward IEEE, an organization that represents electrical and electronics engineers.

They are on record as opposing H-1B, but they are not opposed to immigrants and immigration.

In part, IEEE opposition to H-1B is that it is a temporary visa program, which is hard to enforce and exposes workers to exploitation by their employers.

My caller may have been a little over the top in describing H-1B workers as slave labor, but the fact remains that these workers have very little flexibility to move to another employer if they become dissatisfied with their current situation.

But IEEE's approach is very reasonable and has broader application, I believe.

According to a statement on its Web site:

"IEEE-USA does not want to just reform the H-1B program: we want to replace it. We believe that temporary visas are a bad deal for the U.S. economy and for workers no matter how the visa programs are structured.

"We prefer immigration visas, which give workers the right to live in the United States as long as they like. Workers using these visas are harder to exploit than temporary workers, even without complicated oversight."

Congress instead should focus on expanding the green card program, IEEE says. Green cards "allow foreigners with advanced skills and education to become Americans quickly ? but there aren't enough of them. Each year about twice as many H-1B visas are issued to workers as EB visas, reflecting Congress' fondness for the temporary visa."

What I like about this solution is that it includes a path to citizenship. That's the key to any immigration reform.

Guest worker programs are bad news, in my view, because they not only create conditions where people can be exploited but there also is the very real risk of creating a large population of people who live and work here but have no stake in what it means to be an American because they aren't citizens. And can't become citizens.

Without a clear and reasonable path to citizenship for legal and illegal immigrants, we run the risk of serious problems, even violence. We should all remember the riots in France, sparked by problems because their guest worker program created a large population of disenfranchised people who had no real stake in the success of the country.

Do the large numbers of immigrants that come to the United States change our culture? Sure.

But that is the great thing about America ? we change, we grow, we adapt. And because of that we become stronger.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Mar 04, 2008 at 9:55 AM

Reader Comments

Thu, Mar 6, 2008 Walt Crosby CONCORD MA

Spare us the "I'm the child of an immigrant" argument. The fact of the matter is that highly paid and highly qualified American workers are being discriminated against (primary by age and national origin) in favor of the hiring of cheap labor.Even though Green card holders would be better off because they would not be indentured to their masters anymore -- it's still a replacement of employment of an able-bodied American with a new immigrant.I'm not anti-immigrant. I am however anti-throw-the-able-American-out-of-work-for-cheap-labor.

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