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July 19, 2012 at 6:06 AM

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Discuss: Is Seattle getting its share of H1-B visa money?

Civil disagreements with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey, members of the Seattle Times editorial board is a weekly feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Bruce and Lynne often disagree on major issues -- Bruce tends more conservative and Lynne more liberal. As foils in editorial board meetings, their shrewd thinking and passionate arguing elevates the discussion and they agree sharpens their own arguments.

Lynne Varner

Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: Bruce, the most common complaint about the H-1B visa program is that it brings in foreign workers, mainly for computer programming and engineering, at the expense of U.S. workers skilled in those areas. But here's something else. According to this story, Seattle ranked ninth in H-1B visa requests per 1,000 workers over the past two years, but 64th per capita in workforce grant money generated by visa fees.

Here's how the grant program works. Companies pay anywhere from $1,500 to $5,500 to apply for visas for foreigners with special skills. The money goes into a federal fund and distributed to states through a competitive grant process to pay for training U.S. workers, some for jobs similar to ones held by H1-B visa recipients. About $1 billion in H-1B visa fees has gone out to states for skills training since 2001. We got about $2 million of it.

Asia produces more than half of the world's engineering bachelor's degrees. Our companies will continue to look overseas until we can come close to Asia's production.
Microsoft is the biggest user of the program. Amazon ranks high.

Bruce, I think we should be getting more money. We should be, not just because our companies put more into the fund - that proportional distribution argument is gaining popularity by the way - but because our region can demonstrate an economic urgency and need for the money. Amazon and other companies can't hire skilled workers fast enough and it helps the bottom line if they can hire some from nearby.Microsoft has more than 5,100 open jobs in the U.S. I love the educated, vibrant diversity of this region but I also want people here to aspire to those jobs. Hence the special emphasis by local schools on science, technology, engineering and math studies.

The H-1B visa study by the Brookings Institution raises plenty of questions that ought to result in more conversations at the federal level. The Washington, D.C. think tank sponsored this chat on the topic. that is worth checking out.

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I just can’t get worked up over this story, which is that Microsoft, Amazon, the UW, et. al., generate a lot of H1-B money for the federal government, but that it spends the money in places like Wichita, Kansas. So what? Maybe the money is better spent in Kansas. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it would be better in lowering the national debt. The story doesn’t inquire in that direction.

What irritates me is the begging from the government. It’s people saying, “We’re not getting our share. Spend more money on us.” Americans have to quit relying on the federal government to pay for things. (Just today we heard a pitch for Seattle's central waterfront plan, and it was stated that there is a federal responsibility for the sea wall.)

The public's comments on the news story focus on the H1-B program itself. A common theme is that companies bring in foreigners because they are cheap, and that all these companies ought to be forced to hire Americans. I don't buy this argument. A company like Microsoft is in global competition. It needs to be able to recruit for high-brainpower jobs from a global labor pool. They will hire people from India; if they can't bring them here, they will take the work there. Better to allow some of them to come here under a regulated system such as the H1-B. If they are wanted badly enough, we should let them stay here. It improves the gene pool.

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