Baseball, technology and immigrants

America embraces foreign-born ballplayers, but not engineers, much to the dismay of big business, says Fortune's Marc Gunther.

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Imagine if the baseball season had begun this week without such foreign-born stars as Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Justin Morneau and the latest Japanese import, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and his mysterious "gyroball."

It wouldn't be as much fun, would it? Fans want to see the most skilled players compete - immigrants and Americans.

So why is it that people don't want skilled immigrants to compete for jobs in the multibillion-dollar technology industry?

They view these immigrants as a threat. CNN anchor Lou Dobbs argues permitting more educated, foreign-born engineers, scientists and teachers into the country would force many qualified American workers out of the job market.

That may be true in baseball, where the number of jobs on big league rosters is fixed. That's not necessarily so in technology, where people with skills and ambition help expand job opportunities. Immigrants helped start Sun Microsystems, Intel (Charts), Yahoo! (Charts), eBay (Charts) and Google (Charts). Would America be better off if they'd stayed home?

"This is not about filling jobs that would go to Americans," says Robert Hoffman, an Oracle (Charts) vice president and co-chair of a business coalition called Compete America, which favors allowing more skilled workers into the United States. "This is important to create jobs. It's not a zero sum game."

This week, as it happens, is not just opening week of the baseball season. It's the week when employers rush to apply for the limited number of visas, called H-1B visas, that became available on April 1 to allow them to temporarily hire educated, foreign-born workers. This year, Congress has allowed 65,000 of these H-1B visas, plus another 20,000 for foreign-born students who earn advanced degrees from U.S. universities. After obtaining guest-worker visas, employees can then seek green cards that allow them to stay in the United States

FedEx and UPS did a brisk business last weekend because the visas are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The first 65,000 are already gone. The 20,000 earmarked for graduates of U.S. universities will be distributed in a month or two, experts say.

This makes it very hard for companies to hire foreign-born graduates of the U.S.'s top schools. More than half the graduate students in science and engineering at U.S. universities were born overseas.

"It's sending a signal to the best international students that they may not want to make their career in the United States," says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a research group. (Anderson, an immigration specialist, also wrote a study of baseball and immigration that's available here as a PDF file.)

Expanding H1-B visas is a top priority for U.S. tech firms. Bill Gates, Microsoft's (Charts) chairman, told Congress last month: "I cannot overstate the importance of overhauling our high-skilled immigration system.... Unfortunately, our immigration policies are driving away the world's best and brightest precisely when we need them most."

CNN's Lou Dobbs was unimpressed. "The Gates plan would force many qualified American workers right out of the job market," he fretted on the air after Gates testified. "There's something wrong when a man as smart as Bill Gates advances an elitist agenda, without regard to the impact that he's having on working men and women in this country."

It's not just Dobbs. Internet bulletin boards and blogs are filled with complaints about foreign-born engineers. The U.S. branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the leading society of engineers, brought about 60 engineers to Washington last month to ask for reforms to the H-1B program. IEEE-USA supports a bill proposed by Senators Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, that is designed to crack down on companies that use the guest worker program to displace Americans from jobs.

As it happens, most of the largest users of the H1-B program are not American companies but foreign firms that want to move jobs out of the United States. Seven of the 10 firms that requested the most H1-B visas in 2006 were outsourcing firms based in India, which use the visas to train workers in the United States before they are rotated home, according to Ron Hira, an engineer who teaches public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Indian outsourcing firms Wipro and Infosys were the two top requestors of H1-B visas.

In a paper for the Economic Policy Institute, Hira says that expanding H-1B visas without improving controls will "lead to more offshore outsourcing of jobs, displacement of American technology workers (and) decreased wages and job opportunities" for Americans. He told me: "Bill Gates talks about how you are shutting out $100,000-a-year software engineers. But if you look at the median wage for new H1-B workers, it's closer to $50,000."

Asked about that, Jack Krumholtz, who runs Microsoft's Washington office, said the average salary for Microsoft's H1-B workers is more than $109,000, and that the company spends another $10,000 to $15,000 per worker applying for the visas and helping workers apply for green cards. "We only hire people who we want to have on our team for the long run," he said.

It seems clear that Microsoft - along with Oracle, Intel, Hewlett Packard and other members of the Compete America coalition - do not use the guest worker program to hire cheap labor. They just want to hire the best engineers, many of whom are foreign born.

So what to do? Everyone seems to agree that the H1-B program needs fixing. (Even Hira, the critic, says the United States should absorb more high-skilled immigrants.) Whether Congress can fix it is questionable. The guest-worker program is tied up in the debate over broader immigration reforms.

But guess what? Just last year, Congress passed the Compete Act of 2006, which stands (sort of) for "Creating Opportunities for Minor League Professions, Entertainers and Teams through Legal Entry." Yes, that law made it easier for baseball teams to get visas for foreign-born minor league players.

If the government can fix the problem for baseball, surely it can do so for technology, too. Top of page