U.S. Tech Workers Bear Brunt of Immigration Policy

In April, 2003, Kevin Flanagan, a computer programmer with Bank of America (search), was fired from his job after being forced to train his replacement, an Indian worker who was taking over Flanagan's job as part of Bank of America's effort to replace its American workforce with foreign labor. 

Flanagan walked outside into his office parking lot and shot himself to death.

A year later, it's no surprise that the impact of foreign labor (search) on American workers has become a potent political issue this campaign season. What Americans need to understand is how complicit the U.S. government has been in helping large corporations secure cheap foreign labor, and the impact that has had not just on American workers, but on the foreign laborers doing their jobs for a fraction of their wages.

In 2000, with the economy entering a full recession, America imported 650,263 foreign workers under two employer-friendly visa programs, H-1B (search) and L-1 (search). In 2001, with the economy still struggling and the tech industry laying off 500,000 American workers, Congress responded to heavy lobbying by business interests by signing off on another 712, 671 employment-related visas for the year -- a surge of nearly 10 percent in labor imports. 

Even a 2002 report by the undersecretary for technology at the Department of Commerce, which found that several years of data did not support the IT industry lobbyists’ claims of a critical worker shortage, could not stop Congress from issuing another 684,189 H-1B and L-1 visas that year.

The flood continued into 2003. As top-dollar lobbyists made the rounds on Capitol Hill with the story that technology corporations couldn't find American computer programmers (and those corporations dumped money into Washington -- $201 million in 2000 alone), American IT workers across the country were being laid off.

And while some members of Congress, fresh from depositing their campaign contribution checks, were justifying their pro-industry votes with the industry line that Americans -- the people who invented computers -- were just too lacking in skills to program them, story after story emerged of middle-aged American IT workers fired and replaced with 25-year-old foreign nationals.

As a final indignity, these American workers -- many with families, American mortgages to pay, and college tuitions to save -- are often required to train their own replacements in order to receive their desperately needed severance packages.

Since Congress raised the H-1b visa cap in 2000, over two million employment-related visas have been issued. But it isn't only Americans who are suffering.

The replacement workers are also often victims. Not only does the foreign replacement worker earn about half what the American he or she replaced did, but Congress lets the worker's American boss control the visa -- ensuring a workforce as compliant as it is cheap. If the foreign worker complains about low wages, unpaid overtime, lack of health care or deplorable living conditions, the boss can yank the visa.

Remarkably, in spite of the number of Americans devastated by the employment visa programs, and despite the fact that the injustices would seem to make scrapping them an easy moral call, some of those in Congress continue to work aggressively to import even higher numbers of both skilled and unskilled foreign workers.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, has in many ways taken the leadership role in increasing immigration (a role he took from former Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, whose immigration policies played a major role in his 2000 defeat.) The Washington Post has called Cannon the "point man" in Congress for Bush administration efforts to push for an illegal aliens amnesty

In an October 2000 press release titled “Cannon Manages House Passage of High Tech Visa Bill," Rep. Cannon took credit for passing the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000 (search), the very act that marked the onset of the current flood. 

In the four years since the passage of the bill, stories like Kevin Flanagan's don't seem to have dampened enthusiasm. This year, Cannon has signed on to several bills that would increase immigration, and introduced a couple of his own. His AgJOBS bill (search), which is both a massive new amnesty for illegal aliens and a major new guest worker program, has drawn the enthusiastic endorsement of some four hundred groups and organizations -- overwhelmingly business interests. His efforts have earned him awards of appreciation from immigration lawyers' interests and ethnic-identity organizations.

As the impact on Americans grows more severe, however, a political backlash becomes increasingly likely. Even cynical veterans of the anti-H-1b wars, who for years have been resigned to the influence of corporate interests in American politics, are beginning to talk about real signs of a major shift.

Chris Cannon is at the center of much of this talk. Once considered one of the safest Republicans in Congress -- a 10-year incumbent in the most Republican district of the most Republican state in the country--Cannon's history on immigration issues has become a political hot potato in Utah. One of his challengers, Matt Throckmorton (search), an up-and-coming former state legislator, has been a long-time critic of Cannon's immigration policies and his message has struck home. Cannon has been forced into either defending his amnesty bills (a policy opposed by four out of five Americans), or flat out denying he supports amnesties (which his record makes impossible).

Meanwhile, a disgruntled former IT worker has gathered compelling evidence of what appears to be questionable financial arrangements between Cannon and those who profit by his cheap labor votes in Congress. Salt Lake City's Deseret News printed a letter from the worker detailing the evidence, which was picked up by the RescueAmericanJobs Web site. On Monday, the former IT worker filed a formal ethics complaint.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether any of this will result in change in Washington. 

Yet somewhere in America, a middle-aged American will be training his replacement how to do his job at half the cost, and wondering what will happen to his family once the severance money runs out. As he cleans out his desk, another group of smart, young lobbyists in thousand-dollar suits will be telling some member of Congress how their client, an IT giant, has really, really tried to find an American who can program computers.

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He is the author of The New Immigration Law and Practice, to be published in October.

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