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Programmers form import industry

India-born Murali Devarakonda described the problems facing him and others: "This is a real human-rights violation in America. You are an indentured servant, a modern-day slave."

A garment worker in an urban sweatshop? No, he's a computer programer, hired under an H-1B guest-worker visa. For the past three years, computer industry public relations experts have been blanketing the media with shrill claims of a programmer labor shortage. The "temporary" solution, they have told Congress, is to import H-1B programmers.

What they haven't said is that employers seek H-1Bs not because of a shortage of programmers but from a desire for cheap "indentured" labor. Although the industry lobbyists did not disclose this information to Congress, it was hardly a secret. Several university studies have shown that the imported programmers and engineers are paid 15 percent to 33 percent below normal. Even highly pro-business Forbes magazine cited a pay gap of 25 percent to 30 percent. The Wall Street Journal reported that the H-1Bs are paid $20,000 to $25,000 less than Americans with the same skills.

There was no lack of government data for Congress to draw upon, either. The General Accounting Office, Congress' own research arm, said the program was not effective at protecting the H-1Bs, or even American workers whom employers shun in favor of hiring H-1Bs. The federal Department of Commerce _ a thoroughly pro-business institution _ reported it could not find evidence of a programmer shortage and warned that 28 percent of new jobs in programming and related areas were going to H-1Bs. So, when Congress recently approved a near doubling of the yearly H-1B quota, it certainly did not lack information about severe problems with the program.

Yet, in the Senate's discussion of H-1B, the GAO report wasn't mentioned, though it had been released a few weeks earlier, nor did any senator cite other studies and audits. The senators spoke about the "need" for the quota increase, and then voted 96-1 for the bill.

Why was the Senate so deaf to its own research unit and the mountain of other evidence against expanding a demonstrably broken program?

The answer was given by a surprisingly blunt Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. "There were, in fact, a whole lot of folks against "the bill," but because they are tapping the high-tech community for campaign contributions, they don't want to admit that in public."

An equally blunt (though less apologetic) assessment had been given before the vote by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va, who said, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs . . . This is a very important issue for the high-tech executives who give the money." Davis chairs the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.

Just to make sure there were no problems on the House side, its leadership had the bill passed by stealth. It was announced one afternoon that a vote on the bill would not be taken that day, so most members went home. But a vote was held in the evening anyway, with only 40 of 435 representatives present.

Most H-1Bs want their employers to sponsor them for green cards, and it is here that the de facto indentured servitude arises. They do not dare change employers, as that would necessitate renewing the green card process and therefore losing time they had already put in. In recent years, an H-1B would typically be stuck in a job for about five years.

The new law makes some technical corrections, but the period of indentured servitude will still be about three or four years _ still favored by companies.

The law requiring that H-1Bs be hired at the prevailing wage is riddled with loopholes. H-1Bs aren't going to get raises either; if one cannot leave, one has no bargaining power.

And though some employers do not cheat their H-1Bs relative to American programmers of the same age and background, they still save on salaries by hiring H-1Bs, whose median age is 28, instead of hiring more expensive Americans over age 40. Even the industry-dominated high-tech work force committee of the National Research Council concedes that employers often prefer younger programmers. (Industry lobbyists cite low unemployment rates for programmers, but the ex-programmers forced into other fields do not count in such data.)

Yet U.S. citizens and permanent residents do not get priority over the imports. As immigration attorney Joel Stewart has boasted about the green card process: "Employers who favor aliens have an arsenal of legal means to reject all U.S. workers who apply."

To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, you can't fool all of Congress all of the time _ but you don't have to. Just buy 'em out.

Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.

Special to Newsday