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Proposal for Widespread H1-B Visa Program Reform Threatens Global Economy

C. Sherburne | Photodisc | Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief - and one often fueled by misperception and misinformation, major IT services companies do not hoard visas and they do not displace American workers. However, before favoring massive H1-B reform or outright abolishment, opponents should take a closer look at its implications from a global perspective. (The US H1B visais a non-immigrant visa, allowing US companies to employ a foreign individual who is highly skilled, educated or a specialist for up to six years.)

Get ready for the H1-B debate to become a front-burner, if not front page issue in 2010.

The U.S. House of Representatives was last month presented with the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, or CIR ASAP. This bill proposes comprehensive immigration reform, including changes to the H1-B visa program. With all the hype, hysteria and hot air generated around the H1-B visa program issue during the past several years, one fundamental truism remains: the current annual level of H-1B visas being utilized in the United States is about the same level as in 1990.

This is pretty amazing when one considers two facts: 1) the U.S. GDP has risen by 64 percent during the past 19 years (from from $8.5 trillion to $14 trillion) and 2) and during the same timeframe, the U.S. technology industry - by far the largest group to take advantage of H1-B visas and arguably its largest beneficiary grown by a considerably larger margin on an annual percentage basis.

So when discussions around about how the H1-B visa program should be dramatically overhauled or even completely abolished, I cannot help but shake my head. The same applies when I hear the argument that this program is somehow responsible for the challenging economic climate here in the U.S. After all, the number of new H-1B visa holders in the U.S. accounted for only 0.07 percent of the U.S. labor force in 2008. And this year, only about 73,000 H1-B visa petitions were filed.

Certainly the current economic downturn - both here in the U.S. (where unemployment recently soared to a 26-year high of 10.2 percent) and globally is a contributing factor, but not the only one. When the economy improves, most technology industry observers and economists believe we have hit bottom, H1-B visa demand will increase. In fact, we recently did see an uptick, but the number of workers using H1-B visas versus the total U.S. employee population will be miniscule.

Don't get me wrong on the governance aspect of H1-B visa usage. In frothy economic times, as well as difficult ones, there is an inherent/pressing need for government oversight and intervention with regard to visa fraud and abuse. My company and I fully support the actions that the USCIS has taken and will continue to take. The cases of companies - American and international - have been well documented.

But visa fraud and fair and legitimate visa usage are two very different topics with the former being a topic for another day.

Additionally contrary to popular belief, not all H1-B visa utilization strategies are created equal.

As the U.S. president of HCL Technologies and an American citizen myself, I think I sit in a rather unique position. My company actually uses very few H1-B visas (only 87 in 2008), particularly relative to others in our sector and relative to our total number of local hires so my interest in this area is hardly self-serving. Rather, it is largely personal. I came to America nearly forty years ago, studied at one of our greatest and most respected institutions of higher learning, Notre Dame. From there I have worked for many great U.S. organizations and companies in technology and financial services.

Several months ago, James Sherk, Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation, and Diem Nguyen, a Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation made a compelling argument against adding regulations to the H-1B program, stating in their belief, this would represent a serious setback to U.S. Other thought leaders, academics and captains of industry here in the U.S. have echoed that sentiment. While their point of view is that America's loss is the world's gain, I politely disagree with that assertion because I think it represents only half the argument. I believe that any form of protectionism is dangerous and this age of globalization, the proposal to abolish or dramatically reduce H1-B visas hurts our global economy, not just America's.

Drawing from my personal and professional experience versus a simple or biased opinion, limiting or eliminating imported talent - whether technical or other types - will do nothing to boost our already choppy economic situation, nor will it help to develop the American workforce.

I fear it will do just the opposite.

As a big proponent of a truly global workforce, I think our government is making it increasingly difficult for U.S. companies to hire the "best and brightest." The irony here is that we have never had a greater sense of urgency when it comes to fostering new thinking and technology development in the areas of biotech, clean tech, healthcare, and IT and in driving innovation across all geographies. Furthermore, H1-B limitations would discourage bright foreign students graduating from our top colleges and universities from even seeking to start their careers here. This troubling scenario represents a major a loss to the students, their prospective employers and to the country. Companies who see their opportunities to hire such students evaporate may outsource even more jobs, especially those that can be done on a virtual or consulting basis.

The genius of the United States has been its ability to constantly innovate and stay ahead of the curve. A recent article in Wall Street Journal discussed how while computer engineering degrees were on a decline in the US, there was a marked increase in degrees earned in mechanical engineering. The point behind the article was that the spark for innovation was once again being resurrected. I think it is this spirit that will revive the economy and help us to retain our rightful position as the world's leading economy.

We should not divert our energies.

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Shami Khorana is President of HCL America, Inc., a division of HCL Technologies. Dr. Khorana is responsible for managing U.S. operations and accelerating HCL's growth in the U.S. Since taking the helm of HCL America five years ago, the division has grown multi fold and represents 56% of HCL Technologies' overall revenue. Khorana earned a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at Bombay University, a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Notre Dame, and an MBA from Indiana University. Dr. Khorana has also taught at Indiana University, George Washington University and the University of Maryland.