Commentary: Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor And All Your Techies

Help-wanted signs are everywhere. Texas Instruments Inc. is beating the bushes for more than 500 skilled workers, from clean-room technicians to electrical engineers. At Loews Philadelphia Hotel, a January job fair filled only 180 of 550 available positions. From coast to coast, jobs--many with fat paychecks attached--are going begging.

The shortage of workers--high- and low-skilled alike--could stall America's boom. But there's a ready solution: a rethinking of immigration policy. Welcoming more newcomers may help quell inflation and prolong robust growth.

The political climate for opening America's doors to immigrants has never been brighter. Even organized labor, which has long viewed immigrants as a threat, is changing its tune. At a Feb. 16 meeting in New Orleans, the executive council of the AFL-CIO called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants and a repeal of most sanctions against their employers. The reason: Union leaders increasingly see illegal workers as potential recruits.

QUICK FIXES. Few on Capitol Hill go that far, but attitudes are changing there, too. To relieve pressures on the low end, lawmakers are considering more temporary visas for seasonal workers. More important, they're putting out the welcome mat for high-tech workers. GOP senators led by Michigan's Spencer Abraham have proposed lifting the annual cap on H-1B visas--temporary work permits for foreign professionals--from 115,000 to 195,000 annually through 2002. Democrats are pushing for special visas for foreigners who earn science and engineering degrees at U.S. universities.

These proposals don't go far enough. At a time of 4% unemployment, Washington has an opportunity to do more than pass a few quick fixes for companies that need computer programmers.

First, the system for doling out permanent visas for skilled workers--green cards--needs an overhaul. Country-by-country quotas for employment-based immigration cause long waits from countries such as India and China with many qualified applicants--while visas earmarked for countries like Poland and Bangladesh go unused. In 1998, only 77,500 of the 140,000 green cards reserved for skilled foreign nationals were issued. "With the economy rolling at full speed, those visas shouldn't be lost to business," says Jeanne A. Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. Ditch the country quotas or give unused slots to applicants from oversubscribed countries.

Washington also should focus more attention and resources on whittling down the backlog of immigration applications. Because Congress earmarked a big chunk of the Immigration & Naturalization Service's budget for border police and raids, the INS couldn't cope with a surge of 690,000 applications between 1995 and '98.

While the process of getting H-1B visas is faster, enough aren't available. This fiscal year's quota of 115,000 immigrants let in on these three-year visas may be reached by March, and it's unclear how soon Congress will debate the proposed increase. When it does, a broader question should be asked: Why not eliminate the H-1B caps altogether? Since these workers are protected by labor rules, there's little reason to fear they'll be exploited. And pressure on pay may abate, since demand for skilled workers in many booming sectors far outweighs supply.

Commentary: Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor--and All Your Techies

REAL RIVALS. Of course, taking these steps would not resolve all the issues raised by immigration. Greater debate is needed on how to meet the increased demand for low-skilled workers, for example, as the risks there are higher. A 1997 study by the independent National Research Council showed that earnings of native-born Americans without high school diplomas fell by 5% over the last 15 years because of competition from immigrants. It would be a mistake to open America's doors wide to people with no sought-after skills.

Yet with growing support in labor and both political parties, and with even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan cheering for more immigration, it's time to bring in more newcomers. By keeping the labor pool growing as baby boomers age and U.S. birthrates stagnate, overhauling America's creaking immigration system will help us all.

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