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Demand for more H-1B visas rises

June 15, 2007 13:33 IST

As the US engages in a heated debate over how to overhaul its immigration policies, a top Google executive made the case before Congress to open the doors to more high-skilled foreign workers and make it easier for them to become citizens.

"The fact is that we are in a fierce worldwide competition for top talent unlike ever before," said Laszlo Bock, vice-president for people operations at Google. "As companies in India, China, and other countries step up efforts to attract highly skilled employees, the United States must continue to focus on attracting and retaining these great minds."

Bock's comments came June 6 during a day when business leaders testified on immigration reform. The four men who appeared before the House subcommittee on immigration represented very different sectors of the economy, from restaurants to farming to the Internet. But they all agreed that the U.S. needs to welcome more workers from abroad.

Courting controversy

"We have a serious demographic problem in the United States," said John Gay, senior vice-president for government affairs and public policy at the National Restaurant Assn. "Without an overhaul to our dysfunctional immigration system, we are in danger of not having the workers we need to grow our economy."

Whether the country's immigration laws will be rewritten this year remains very much in question. On May 17, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled one proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, affecting low- and high-skill workers. But the initiative has taken heavy criticism from all sides.

Conservatives argue that giving the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country a path to citizenship amounts to amnesty, while liberals say that deemphasizing family ties in favor of work skills is unfair. The House, led by immigration subcommittee chair Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), is holding hearings on the issue, while the Senate debates the controversial proposal.

H-1B reliant

In his testimony before Lofgren and other subcommittee members, Bock pointed out that immigrants have been deeply intertwined with the history of Google and the tech industry overall. The founders of Intel, eBay, Yahoo!, and Sun Microsystems all included immigrants who came to America.

At Google, co-founder Sergey Brin was able to help start the search engine because his parents had been welcomed into the country. "Sergey's parents fled the Soviet Union in 1979 when he was six," said Bock. "A first-generation American, he is now one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world."

Bock made it clear that the contributions to Google from people born outside the U.S. go well beyond Brin. "Immigrants from countries like Canada, Iran, and Switzerland now lead our business operations, global marketing, global business development, and data infrastructure operations," he said.

Bock said Google makes particularly active use of the temporary work visa, known as an H-1B, that allows people from abroad to work in the U.S. for several years. He said 8% of the company's employees in the U.S. are on H-1B visas.

Visa shortage

Orkut Buyukkokten, a native of Turkey who received a PhD in computer science from Stanford University, joined Google as a software engineer on a temporary visa and later developed its social networking service, now known as Krishna Bharat, who's originally from India and who earned a PhD in human computer interaction from Georgia Tech, joined Google in 1999 on an H-1B visa and was instrumental in creating Google News, an aggregation service.

Bock's appearance in Washington underscores how the search giant has become more engaged in policy debates in recent years . He told the panel he was no expert in immigration laws, but Bock said the Mountain View (Calif.) company considers it important to increase the number of highly skilled workers who can enter the U.S., both on a temporary and permanent basis.

The number of H-1B workers allowed into the country is currently capped at 65,000 for undergraduates and another 20,000 for graduate students. This spring, all of the H-1B visas for fiscal 2007 were claimed within the first two days for applications . Bock called the situation a "crisis," adding that over the last year Google has not been able to hire 70 promising candidates because of the visa shortage.

Reform needed

Those opinions are controversial among US workers, politicians, and some academics. The H-1B program has come under fire recently because of the nature of its users. While the program was originally set up to help US companies hire workers with rare skills, outsourcing companies, particularly from India, have become the most active participants in the program.

In 2006, 10 of the top 20 recipients of H-1B visas were Indian outsourcers, with Infosys Technologies and Wipro taking the two top spots. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have launched an investigation into how the Indian outsourcers are using the program and have said that they suspect the visas are being used to "facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs".

Ron Hira, a public policy professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology, has closely studied the issues of temporary work visas and outsourcing. He appreciates how immigration has helped Google and other tech companies. "Google's hiring and employment practices are surely not representative," Hira says. "So should we really be making policy based on the exception rather than the rule?" He contends that the criteria by which workers are allowed into the country should be tightened so the program is not used to outsource jobs.

Tech workers are also concerned about letting in more people on H-1B visas. They fear that companies will use the program to drive down wages for American workers and move jobs overseas. "Our feeling is that before we talk about increases, we should implement reforms," says Chris McManes, spokesman for the IEEE-USA, the US arm of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers.

Personal angle

Google clearly has a different opinion. Bock points out that if the search giant cannot bring foreign workers into the US, it can hire them at its many operations abroad. "However, many of our core products are created and improved here in the US, and we believe that worker satisfaction is higher when employees can work in the location they prefer," he said.

"Being able to have H-1B visa holders remain in the US, building our products and expanding our business, also translates into more jobs and greater economic growth here at home."

Amid the at-times abstract public policy debate, Bock took time out to tell Lofgren and the other House members a personal story.

"I will take a moment to note, Madam Chair, that I, too, am an immigrant to America. My parents came here when they fled communist Romania when I was a child," he said. "My mother is here with me today. I cannot begin to tell you what a proud moment this is for her - and a humbling one for me. Under the Ceausescu dictatorship, she could not have dreamed of her son testifying before a committee of the United States Congress."

Peter Elstrom, BusinessWeek