Green cards, not guest workers

May 1, 2000

Congress is having yet another misconceived debate over increasing the H-1B specialty visa-pro-immigration arguments for a non-immigrant visa.

Citing authorities like Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, proponents argue that the U.S. economy faces a desperate shortage of skilled workers in particular fields, and that the H-1B is the only way to get these workers. Employers want to immediately hire people with exactly the right mix of skills-just-in-time workers for business at the speed of the Web. But they've got the wrong answer. "Permatemp" immigration won't work.

Opponents of the H-1B make a similar mistake, however. Many insist that there is no need to import skilled workers, no matter what their immigration status is. Critics make a particularly compelling case about age discrimination, noting that many older workers who have been adapting to new technologies throughout their careers can't even get interviewed, much less hired in today's overheated job market.

Employers want to hire from a global marketplace. The im ported talent that they hire overwhelmingly wants legal permanent residency-the famous "green card." And U.S. workers understandably want their government to refrain from providing a subsidized work force to compete with them for jobs even as everyone recognizes the need to constantly upgrade skills.

What punctures the balloon logic of those who insist that the H-1B is the only option for a terrible shortage of visas for skilled workers is the fact that in FY1999, some 78,000 immigration visas based on employment went unused. In FY1998, more than 50,000 went unclaimed. Our system for providing green cards based on employment doesn't work.

The overwhelming majority of the 425,000 or so H-1B visa holders already present in the United States want green cards. So do most of those who enter each year on the H-1B program, if only because these guest-worker visas can be obtained more quickly than permanent residency.

The compelling case that guest-worker visas contribute to age discrimination by providing the extra economic incentive of a legal right to live and work in the United States and undercut U.S. wages and working conditions can be directly addressed by basing the whole system on green cards rather than guest-worker visas.

U.S. workers don't need to fear competition from someone with a green card, because a green-card holding legal, permanent resident is a U.S. worker. Legislators falling all over themselves to write H-1B bills acknowledge as much when they propose to make the H-1B "indefinitely temporary" and portable. Employers who want to recruit the best and the brightest should be able to use market forces to do that for U.S. workers and immigrants alike.

That's also how to retain the best-treat them right and pay them what they're worth. Markets correct quickly, regulations don't. The regulatory system that is supposed to facilitate legal residency for skilled immigrants while protecting U.S. workers doesn't do either function well.

So the best way to recruit needed workers, whether by sponsoring foreign students for permanent residency or retraining older workers would be to allow market forces to determine which makes economic sense.

Employers willing to sign legally binding attestations that they are not undercutting U.S. wages and working conditions, backed up by interview and hiring information, should be able to sponsor new hires promptly for permanent residency simply by making a substantial investment in educating and training U.S. workers. After all, price is what reconciles supply and demand.

Paul Donnelly is the organizer of the Immigration Reform Coalition,

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