Business leaders advocate for immigration reform to bring high-skilled workers

Mar. 28, 2013 @ 06:17 PM

During a search to fill job openings about eight years ago, Nicole Hedrick, director of global immigration for IBM Corp., said recruiters found talented workers in universities in the country, but she said they were foreign nationals.

Hedrick said in an immigration-focused panel discussion Thursday at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business that it was difficult to move foreign-born recruits through the immigration process and from internships to full-time jobs. She advocated for changes to make it easier for companies to recruit talented workers.

“Immigration to the majority of folks in the United States, it’s about border crossing,” Hedrick said. “They are so worried about putting up a wall not to let anybody in, that they’ve forgotten to focus in on the folks that are wanting to be here because they are excellent contributors. They will drive the growth for the nation.”

The forum was hosted by the National Foreign Trade Council, and included discussions on the impact of visa and immigration policies on American business as well as on universities. In addition to Hedrick, the panel addressing immigration’s impact on business included Madhu Beriwal, president and CEO of IEM, a disaster and emergency planning company.

William A. Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said the discussion was timely as Congressional leaders have “decided to come to grips with the issue.” According to an Associated Press report Wednesday, President Barack Obama said in interviews on Spanish-language television networks that he expects to see draft immigration legislation from a group of U.S. Senators in April.

“I think there is some reason for optimism after a very long time, 17 years, it turns out to be the time to produce some level of meaningful reform,” Reinsch said Thursday.

Jeremy Robbins, director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, moderated the panel that included Hedrick. He said immigration is a “huge economic driver for this country.”

Hedrick also asked: “Why educate them and send them back to compete against (us)?”

“From the country’s perspective, we have a lot of checks and balances to make sure we’ve got the right folks here, but when you have highly motivated folks that are highly skilled that could be contributing members of our economy, contributing members of are communities, these are folks that are plugged in...,” she said.

Lee Conrad, national coordinator for Alliance@IBM, an organizing campaign and advocate group for IBM employees, said some technology companies are pushing to see the cap on annual H-1B visas raised. But he said the country doesn’t need “any more foreign-born, H-1B visa workers coming in to take jobs that have already been there for IBM employees.”

According to a report from the Brookings Institution, an independent research institute based in Washington D.C., the H-1B program allows employers to hire foreign workers for jobs requiring highly specialized knowledge and a bachelor's degree or higher. The visa is for three years, but can be renewed for a total of six.

There is a cap of 65,000 H-1B visas a fiscal year, and another 20,000 are allowed for workers with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions.

IBM has cut tens of thousands of U.S. jobs in the last decade, Conrad said, citing information attributed to internal sources. IBM does not break down its total workforce by geographic location. Conrad said jobs have been outsourced, and he believes cost is a factor.

“They say talent, but they bring in the H-1B visa employees, their wages are lower, their benefits are very few,” he said. “This is not something that’s good for Americans, but it certainly seems to be something that’s good for the high-tech companies,” he added.

Attempts to reach Doug Shelton, a spokesman for IBM, for a response were not successful Thursday afternoon.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, http://www.uscis.gov/, employers have to certify that they will pay H-1B workers wages at or above levels for the occupation paid to similarly qualified workers or greater, depending on the prevailing wage of the position in the geographic area. They also have to provide working conditions that will not negatively impact other workers.

They can face fines or bars on sponsoring non-immigrant or immigration petitions or other sanctions, according to the website.

David Schanzer, an associate professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, attended the forum. He said immigration can help mitigate problems caused by the low U.S. birth rate and aging population.

“Robust, legal immigration, which is what we’re talking about at this panel, is going to bring more young, productive people who are paying taxes to help support our aging population,” he said.

He said it would be useful for researchers to look at the projected impact to the national deficit if immigration were to be stopped.

“What would be the impact on our budget deficit?” he said.

Aaron “Ronnie” Chatterji, associate professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, advocated Thursday for pushing high-level science, technology, engineering and math studies earlier into children’s education.

“We need to make those investments in science, technology, engineering, and social sciences in the early stages at the same time we’re pushing for immigration to show people we’re serious about the pipeline,” he said.