Low-Tech and High-Tech Braceros

Prior to World War Two, the U.S. agricultural workforce was nationally, racially and ethnically diverse. Depending on the season, crop and the region of the country, Mexicans, Chicanos, African-Americans and Dust Bowl whites all labored on the farms and ranches that kept the nation clothed and fed.  But the guns of war altered the agricultural economy, setting in motion changes that endure in the 21st century.

A reliance on low paid, foreign-born labor was edified in the 1942-64 Bracero Program of Mexican guest workers, and subsequently expanded by the massive employment of a primarily undocumented Mexican workforce and, to a lesser extent, through the contracting of Caribbean, Mexican and other guest workers via the bracero-like, H-2A temporary visa system.

As the U.S. nudged toward a possible immigration reform, the dependence on foreign agricultural labor was reaffirmed last week by Rep.Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), House Judiciary Committee chairman, who said an agricultural guest worker program together with employment eligibility enforcement in the workplace, considered in piecemeal fashion in contrast to the comprehensive immigration reform proposal in the Senate, should be the legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.

With that goal in mind, Rep. Goodlatte has introduced the Agricultural Guestworker “AG” Act (H.R. 1773), which the Republican representative defined as a measure to fix the existing, limited guest worker system by broadening its scope and ridding growers of red tape.

“It also allows more participation in the guest worker program by opening it up to dairies and food processors, both of which often need access to foreign labor,” Rep. Goodlatte said in a press release.  “In addition, the AG Act is good for those seeking a better life for their families by providing opportunities to earn a living while temporarily working in agricultural jobs U.S. citizens are not willing to do.”

The Virginia Congressman’s emphasis on farmworkers notwithstanding, the guest worker issue in the immigration reform debate is far from confined to the barn or field.

Increasingly,  the 21st century bracero is an individual who toils away in an air-conditioned cubicle rather than in a sweltering field. Today’s tool of the trade is a laptop as opposed to the short-handled hoe. And the modern bracero might be from Mombay instead of Michoacan.

Similar to agriculture, the U.S. information technology (IT) industry has become accustomed to guest workers.  And just like the farm sector, high-tech has left a big imprint in the immigration reform process by proposing a significant expansion of guest workers as a central piece of any new law.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and  the American Immigration Lawyers Association are among many prominent supporters of immigration reform calling for the issuance of  significantly more visas to high-tech workers as well as foreign-born Science, Engineering, Technology and Math (STEM) graduates of U.S. universities.

Their rationale?

Industry leaders say there are simply not enough U.S.-resident workers with the necessary skills available to keep the engine of the economy’s most dynamic sector going and growing.

“For too long America’s outdated high-skilled immigration system has been an obstacle to U.S. innovation, job creation and economic,” said Brian Toohey, SIA president and chief executive officer.  “The country’s need for highly skilled and educated workers has never been greater, and the time for meaningful immigration reform is now..”

Some, like the Austin Chamber of Commerce, argue that the U.S. actually experiences a “brain drain” by not keeping talented, foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities employed in this country.

The IT industry’s demand for more guest worker and STEM visas has found sympathetic ears in President Obama and the so-called Gang of Eight senators, four Republican and four Democratic,  who rolled out a comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744)  this month.

In addition to ensuring a steady stream of agricultural guest workers, the measure would significantly increase high-tech related work visas.

In essence, S. 744 is based on the premise that there are not enough resident U.S. workers to fill two polar opposites of the job market: one the most highly skilled sectors and one of the least skilled sectors. But one thing the two occupational markets have in common is that wages have stagnated or declined during the past decade.

According to the non-profit Economic Policy Institute (EPI),  S. 744 would raise the annual cap on visas granted under just one popular category utilized by IT employers, the H1-B visa, from 65,000 per year (plus an extra 20,000 for foreign graduates of U.S. schools) to 115,000, with the possibility of increasing the number to 180,000 in the event of high demand. The bill also increases the number of H1-B visas reserved for foreign graduates of U.S. universities to 25,000.

“Thus, under the likely high-demand scenario, we would have 120,000 more H1-Bs annually than we do now, and 58,800 would be in IT,” concluded EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey.

H-1B workers can be paid less than U.S. workers doing the same job.  Another important fact: H-1B workers tend to be younger than their U.S. counterparts, suggesting age may be an issue in IT companies’  hiring policies.

When H-1B and other STEM-related visas are combined, half of the annual 220,000 IT  job openings  (2011 numbers)  in the U.S. would be filled by guest workers  if S.744 is passed as it is currently written, Eisenbrey contended.

A new EPI study challenges the notion of a professional worker shortage in the IT field. Authored by three scholars from Rutgers, American University and Georgetown University, the study determined that only half of all U.S. STEM college graduates are hired into a career-related job each year.

Yet, even during recent times of high unemployment, the EPI study found that the use of H-1B and other STEM visas actually grew, increasing from 356, 100 available slots in Fiscal Year 2010 to 372,516 in Fiscal Year 2011.

“The debate over guest worker programs is largely based on anecdotal evidence and testimonials from employers, rather than solid evidence,” said Rutgers’ Hal Salzman, one of study’s the co-authors. “Our examination shows that the STEM shortage in the United States is largely overblown. Guest worker programs are in need of reform, but any changes should make sure that guest workers are not lower-paid substitutes for domestic workers.”

An earlier EPI report concluded that the HI-B program served as a cover for outsourcing jobs abroad, since employers could first pay visa beneficiaries less than domestic workers for jobs performed in the U.S. before sending the former back home to work for the same company, especially in India.

Examining H-1B data, the EPI found that ten IT employers accounted for nearly half of the jobs (40,170) covered by H-1B visas during Fiscal Year 2012.

According to the EPI, the same firms had an extremely low “immigration yield,” meaning  the ratio of permanent residency applications to H1-B petitions filed for the companies, for their H-1B holders, who likely returned home rather than remain in the U.S.

Immigration yield, said the EPI’s Ron Hira, is “evidence of the companies’ intention to hire and keep their H-1B workers in the country permanently.”

Added Hira, “That’s why the H-1B was dubbed the ‘outsourcing visa’  by former Commerce Minister of India, Kamal Nath.”

Sources: Albuquerque Journal/Associated Press, April 26, 2013. PRNewswire, April 17, 2013. Economic Policy Institute: http://www.epi.org/. Austin Chamber of Commerce: www.austinchamber.com

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