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May 2006

IEEE-USA Responds to Senate Immigration Bill

By Russell Harrison

Congress is embroiled in debate over immigration reform, with a spate of bills currently under consideration. Central to this debate is Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-Pa.) bill (S. 2454). Because Sen. Specter is Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which exercises jurisdiction over immigration issues, his bill is the most likely to be acted upon.

Specter’s bill is primarily concerned with illegal, low-skill immigration. In addition to a number of provisions designed to improve enforcement of existing immigration laws, the Specter Bill includes an “earned legalization” provision. Championed by President Bush, this program would allow people who are in the United States illegally, but who have a job and no criminal record, to achieve legal status.

IEEE-USA does not have a formal position on any of these major and well-publicized provisions. The association generally does not take positions on public-policy initiatives that do not uniquely affect engineers.

S. 2454 does include a number of less-publicized provisions that will affect engineers and on which IEEE-USA has taken positions, such as the creation of a new F-4 visa; expanding the existing EB-1 and EB-2 visas; and expanding the H-1B visa program.

F visas enable foreign students to study at American colleges and universities. The new F-4 visa will be available to students who receive a Masters or Ph.D. from an American college or university in science, engineering, math, technology or related fields. The F visa allows these students to become permanent residents with green cards, once they find a job.

EB visas are permanent residency visas (green cards) for highly-skilled foreign workers, including engineers. Specter’s bill would remove the cap on these visas for professionals with Masters and Ph.D.s from American schools in science, math, engineering, or technology.

The most controversial of Sen. Specter’s proposals is expanding the H-1B visa program. Currently capped at 85,000 annually, Specter would raise this cap to 135,000. He also introduced a “market-based” cap adjustment, whereby whenever the current year's cap is reached, the following year the cap would automatically increase 20 percent. However, the bill doesn't include any provision for a downward adjustment when the cap is not reached.

IEEE-USA has taken a strong stand against this change to the H-1B program, and has been a leading voice in Washington for reforming the H-1B visa program. In a letter to the Senate, and in testimony before the House, IEEE-USA has reminded Congress about the numerous flaws in the program, especially the long list of government reports that have described the need for reforms. Specific problems with the H-1B visa include:

  • lack of any enforceable requirements that companies try to hire American workers before turning to the visas

  • lack of an effective requirement that H-1B workers be paid the prevailing American wage for their work

  • the absence of any enforcement authority that would allow the Department of Labor to police the program

IEEE-USA also has two larger conceptual problems with the program. First, temporary visas do nothing to improve the skill base of the American economy. H-1B visas are used to bring talented people into this country to work for up to six years — but do not let them stay or help them become citizens. When the H-1B visa expires, workers must leave the United States, taking their training and experience with them — unless they have been able to secure some other visa status.

The second broad problem with the H-1B visa program is who controls the visas? Companies, not individuals, apply for and receive permission to use the visas. Once companies receive the visas, they find people to use them. But control of the visas remains in the hands of the company, not the workers using them. Because companies can withdraw the visas from any employee at any time, for any reason, exposing them to deportation, H-1B workers have little leverage with respect to decent wages or working conditions. Such employer control unnecessarily exposes H-1B workers to exploitation.

IEEE-USA has expressed support for the new F-4 and expanded EB visas as reasonable alternatives for proposed H-1B increases contained the Specter bill. Because these visas offer permanent residency for skilled foreign workers, they avoid many of the pitfalls that have plagued the H-1B program. Permanent immigration visas allow talented non-American workers to become a permanent part of our economy, strengthening the nation's competitiveness.

IEEE-USA thinks expanded F-4 and EB programs would be beneficial to the American engineering profession in the long-run, but the organization does not believe that those benefits would outweigh the harms of an expanded H-1B program.

Engineers who are concerned about H-1B visas or the Specter Bill should contact their legislators to express their opinions. IEEE members can use the IEEE-USA Legislative Action Center [www.captiolconnect.com/ieee] to send e-mails to Congress.

Q.

How does IEEE-USA decide what its position will be on technology-related public policy issues?
 

A.

The process starts with IEEE-USA’s technology policy committees. Each year, IEEE-USA's president appoints volunteers to run these seven committees, which include members appointed by IEEE technical societies, and at-large members with expertise in the subject area. All U.S. IEEE members (Regions 1-6) are entitled to participate on these committees. While the number of formal seats is limited, each committee may have an unlimited number of “corresponding” members, who can fully participate in committee deliberations, but lack a formal vote.

The technology policy committees draft formal position statements explaining the positions IEEE-USA has taken. These statements include background on an issue and a detailed explanation of why the committee has chosen to endorse a particular policy.

Once position statements are approved by the committees, they are reviewed by the IEEE-USA Technology Policy Council, which is chaired by IEEE-USA's Vice President for Technology Policy Activities. If approved, they are then presented to IEEE-USA's Operating Committee for endorsement, then to the IEEE-USA Board of Directors for final approval. Prior to final approval, IEEE-USA seeks the comments of the IEEE Presidents, who have the option of referring the position to the IEEE Board of Directors for review. After all approvals and reviews are completed, IEEE-USA can publicly promote the position.

All IEEE-USA position statements and policy committees can be found at www.ieeeusa.org.


 

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Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA's Legislative Representative for Grassroots Activities. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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