MANHASSET, N.Y. A group of unemployed high-tech workers demonstrated against the U.S. government's H-1B visa program on Wednesday (Feb. 12) outside a Dallas hotel where the IEEE-USA's board was holding its quarterly meeting. A past president of IEEE-USA, an engineering association, was among the six demonstrators at the protest.
The demonstrators protested what they contend is abuse of the H-1B visa program by high-tech employers. The program allows companies to grant temporary visas to foreign-born technical workers, but the protesters said it was being used to discriminate against and displace American engineers and computer scientists.
The H-1B visa program was widely supported by the high-tech industry in the late 1990s to fuel the high-tech boom and fill positions that industry claimed would have otherwise gone unfilled.
Unemployed biophysicist Gene Nelson of Carrollton, Texas, who led Wednesday's protest outside the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, said the program has been a mistake from the start. In testimony before Congress in 1999, Nelson said he thought the H-1B program was an effort "to reduce employer wage and benefit expenditures for highly skilled labor."
LeEarl Bryant, last year's president of IEEE-USA, was outspoken in her criticism of the H-1B program as engineering unemployment climbed during her tenure. She said she attended the Dallas protest as an unemployed engineer, not a representative of IEEE-USA, which did not endorse the protest.
Nelson said the protesters want protection for U.S. high-tech workers, and believe the abolition of the H-1B program is the only way to achieve that.
"I told them [the IEEE-USA's board] if we don't get this [H-1B program] under control, then they are going to have a lot of unemployed [IEEE- USA] members who won't be able to afford their dues," Nelson said in a phone interview from the protest site.
The protest illustrates workers' rising frustration over the H-1B program. The number of unemployed engineers and computer scientists totaled 120,000 in the fourth quarter of 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Critics say problems with the H-1B program intensified in 2000 when Congress increased to 195,000 the number of temporary visas that could be issued each year. The increase from 65,000 H-1B visas was granted after much lobbying by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) and others stating that industry could not find enough qualified American workers to fill jobs.
IEEE-USA complained last week that the United States continued to grant thousands of H-1B visas last year despite higher unemployment rates for U.S. electrical engineers and computer scientists. In addition, 215,000 extensions and initial visas were granted in exempt categories such as non-profit organizations, laboratories and colleges, swelling the total number of H-1B visa holders to "more than 294,000," according to IEEE-USA.
The IEEE-USA is asking for a rollback of the H-1B visa program to an annual cap of 65,000. That cap will be established automatically this fall if Congress does not pass new legislation, the group said.