Magazine article The American Prospect

Feinstein's Rule Some Immigrants Are More Equal Than Others. (Gazette)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Feinstein's Rule Some Immigrants Are More Equal Than Others. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN HAS never been shy about grabbing hot-button law-and-order issues. So it was hardly surprising in the days after September al to see the California Democrat leading the charge for tougher visa restrictions and other controls on foreigners in the United States. As she pointed out, most of the plane hijackers who crashed into the World Trade

Center and the Pentagon had been in this country legally.

Feinstein proposed a six-month moratorium on all student visas. After heated opposition from university presidents, whose institutions crave foreign-student tuition, the idea was quietly dropped. But it was soon succeeded by a sweeping Feinstein bill, co-sponsored by Republican Senator John Kyl of Arizona, that would require tougher screening of all visa applicants, mandate better federal tracking of foreign visitors, require a background check before issuing any student visa, and block all student visas to individuals from countries that the State Department deems sponsors of terrorism.

Conspicuous by its absence was any revision of the dubious H-1B visa program, a Feinstein favorite. In theory, these special visas, now totaling nearly a million, go to foreign high-tech workers in electronics and similar industries. Feinstein--like her fellow California Democrats Senator Barbara Boxer and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren--has zealously supported them. Under the H-1B program, American companies (and some non-American ones) can bring in foreign engineers, programmers, and other techies for jobs that they claim can't be filled by U.S. workers.

In October 2000, even as the dot-coms were failing at eye-opening speeds and the sinking Nasdaq was giving the words "Silicon Valley" an entirely new meaning, Congress rushed through a bill that raised the annual number of H-1Bs from 115,000 (itself up from 65,000 in 1998) to 195,000. With renewals, the visa is good for six years.

To be sure, Feinstein isn't solely responsible. Silicon Valley, led by TechNet and other industry groups, has become a master at intense, bipartisan lobbying. The industry spent an estimated $8 million in "soft money" in the past year alone. The Senate--where Spencer Abraham, now George W. Bush's secretary of energy, got $43,000, and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah received $36,000--passed the bill 96 to 1. The House, where some 350 members collected an average of $5,000 in high-tech contributions, approved the bill by voice vote in the middle of the night.

The professed rationale was that things were desperate: The industry claimed that it simply couldn't find enough people who knew the coding or the software. Without the bill, said the Information Technology Association of America, 850,000 jobs would go unfilled. Oddly, many high-tech companies--those that weren't failing altogether--were already laying off thousands of people.

EVEN IN GOOD TIMES, WERE EMployers really that strapped? Or were they simply trying to cut costs by hiring people from India, China, or Pakistan to work for $40,000 in place of Americans who had earned $55,000 or $ 60,000--and thereby giving themselves the muscle to squeeze both kinds of employees? H-1B workers are eager for U.S. jobs that pay three times what similar jobs pay at home. …

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