WASHINGTON — Three years ago, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, persuaded Congress to open the floodgates to foreign workers seeking high-tech jobs.
On Tuesday, he urged Americans not to blame them for recent high unemployment rates in such fields.
But the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers did anyway, in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Hatch chairs.
"The current levels of engineering unemployment (which reached a record 7 percent in the first quarter) . . . are being exacerbated by the continuing reliance of many employers on foreign-born professionals admitted under the H-1B and other temporary work-permit programs," said IEEE president-elect John Steadman.
Due to expire at the end of this month is legislation Hatch passed in 2000 to allow up to 195,000 aliens a year into America to fill vacant high-tech jobs. Unless Congress renews that law, the limit would revert to just 65,000 a year.
Hatch pushed the legislation when employers complained not enough highly educated Americans were available to fill vacant high-tech jobs. While his bill allowed far greater immigration, it also imposed high fees on each immigrant. The fees helped fund federal scholarship and job-training programs in math and science for Americans.
Hatch held a hearing Tuesday to look at the pros and cons of the program, whether it is still needed and whether it should be reformed. Hatch said critics should not blame all unemployment woes on the alien workers who came through the program.
"For example, we often hear the accusation that U.S. companies are using the H-1B visa to hire cheaper foreign workers," Hatch said, but research suggests that is not true.
He said a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta showed the median income of aliens who have entered the country on H-1B visas — which requires them to have at least a bachelor's degree — is $55,000 a year. That is higher than the $46,000 median for all U.S. workers who hold bachelor's degrees.
Because federal law requires employees to pay such aliens the prevailing wage, Hatch asked, "Is there really an economic incentive for that company to hire a foreign worker over an equally qualified American?"
Hatch also said that as unemployment rose last year, the applications for H-1B visas for high-tech aliens also took a nose dive.
Also, he said, employers of high-tech aliens must pay immigration fees between $2,600 and $4,600 for each worker, which discourages seeking them unless truly needed.
Hatch said such fees raised $692 million to train 55,000 American workers and fund scholarships for more than 12,500 students in science and engineering. He noted that funding will be lost if Congress allows his legislation to expire.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports extending Hatch's legislation and said many industries still report difficulty in filling many high-tech positions.
"It is hard to displace U.S. workers when you don't have any U.S. workers to choose from" in some specialties, said Elizabeth Dickson, an Ingersoll-Rand Co. executive testifying for the chamber.