Dallas ISD, Area Firms Sought Hundreds of Worker Visas Amid Job Losses

Katie Fairbank, Dallas Morning News, March 30, 2009

North Texas companies and the Dallas Independent School District [DISD] requested visas last year for hundreds of foreign workers to fill professional positions–even as the nation’s economy faltered.

The hiring of H-1B workers has been debated nationally as part of the federal stimulus package and locally because of layoffs at DISD. Congress weighed in last month, adding rules that companies that take stimulus money must follow during their next round of hiring. The legislation sets up more regulatory hurdles for companies, including a requirement that companies can’t replace laid-off U.S. workers with foreign workers.

About 50 companies, along with DISD, applied for H-1B visas for jobs in Texas last year and then announced layoffs of thousands of workers in the state, a Dallas Morning News review of government databases shows.

The applications with the U.S. Department of Labor and the layoff notices to the Texas Workforce Commission don’t show whether the applications for foreign workers are for the same jobs that were cut. The companies reached by The News all declined to comment on the subject.

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ST Microelectronics, which has operations in North Texas, filed 21 permanent visa requests last year but wound up hiring only two people. “It’s a very expensive approach for us to use visas to fill positions. If we can’t find what we’re looking for here, then we use a visa, but that’s not our preferred method,” said spokesman Mike Markowitz.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ filing fees are $320 for an H-1B visa and $475 for a permanent visa, also known as a “green card.”

Last year, every one of the 65,000 H-1Bs and 20,000 specialty visas allotted by the government was requested on the first day of filing.

Magnet for criticism

The visa program for foreign workers has been a lightning rod since it was introduced in 1952. Today’s version of the visa, an H-1B, is meant for specialty occupations such as information technology and engineering.

Traditionally, about half of all workers on H-1B visas become permanent residents, experts say. Hiring under the program took off during the technology boom in the 1990s and has continued unabated since. Meanwhile, complaints have kept in step.

Critics claim that the visas are used to displace older, more expensive workers while keeping an artificial cap on salaries. They also say the program has been hijacked by so-called “job shops,” which employ large numbers of H-1B workers as contract programmers.

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“It’s about cheap labor. If I were to tell you that a company takes advantage of every tax loophole they can find, you wouldn’t be shocked. With the H-1B work visa, it’s the exact same thing for the exact same reason,” said Dr. Norman Matloff, a professor at the University of California at Davis who has studied the subject for years.

Paul Reeves of Greenville has worked in telecommunications for decades. Now, at 57, he says he can’t find a job in his field because they’re all filled by foreign workers on H-1B visas.

“I’ve been trying to find work, and it’s all tied up with people who make two-thirds of the wages I make,” he said. “They cut the pay scale. I know at least 10 people who are well-qualified in telecommunications who can’t find work.”

Locally, some of the largest requests for H-1B visas came from Texas Instruments Inc. and DISD. The News also made three filings for permanent visas during the period.

TI said that more than half of its 290 H-1B filings last year were extensions or amendments for people changing jobs–not for new employees.

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TI announced 1,200 layoffs in Texas in January and probably won’t make as many visa requests during the next round of filings, which begins Wednesday.

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Dallas ISD tops list

DISD had the most filings of any North Texas entity, with 380 requests for H-1B visas and five for permanent visas.

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Dahlander added that despite job cuts of about 1,000 positions this school year, “we will be making new requests in April.” He said he didn’t know how many.

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There is no grace period for deportation when an H-1B visa holder is let go. But many workers try to switch to another kind of visa, such as a tourist visa, while they search for another job.

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