A forwarded e-mail launched by an unemployed Silicon Valley engineer blames layoffs of American workers on the H1-B visa program, which allows foreigners in high-tech fields to work in the United States. The letter was actively circulating last fall, and appeared on newsgroups and mailing lists. When interviewed, the author, who doesn’t want his name used, said companies prefer H1-B workers to Americans because they will work for less money. Techies.com, an IT job search website, found in a survey conducted shortly before Sept. 11 that 85 percent of respondents (technology professionals) were worried about losing their job to a noncitizen.
A new twist on the anti-H1-B argument has emerged from a combination of economic lethargy and terrorism-based anxiety. Rob Sanchez, a laid-off engineer in Phoenix and creator of an anti-H1-B website (www.zazona.com/shameh1b) says that apart from the pain it causes American workers, the H1-B program leads to national security risks because the visa holders “work in some of our most sensitive industries and so have the potential for setting up terrorist activities.”
H1-B program supporters see the most recent flare-up as part of a dangerous backlash against foreigners. Manjit Singh, executive director and cofounder of the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, notes that Sikh H-1B workers have been victims of harassment since Sept. 11.
The H1-B issue isn’t likely to go away soon. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has filed legislation to roll back the yearly quota of visas allowed under the program to 65,000 (it’s currently at 195,000 per year through 2003) and would cut that even further if unemployment rises. Similar legislation has been defeated before, but it’s unclear what will happen in the current climate. For CIOs, it could become more difficult to fill tech jobs if the number of visas is cut back. Meantime, given the strong emotions the issue raises, CIOs with any H1-B workers on staff should be extra vigilant against bias or harassment in the workplace.