When Robert S. Forman needed someone to develop and manage a complex automated distribution system for IMI Systems Inc., a computer systems design company in New York, he scouted the globe for someone with the right expertise to launch the ambitious project.
It turned out a British national with a European supermarket chain was the person Mr. Forman needed. The system was designed for an IMI client, and at the same time, Mr. Forman's company, now armed with innovative technology, scored an important leg up in the fiercely competitive information technology field. The project also created about 40 high-tech jobs at IMI, which was recently acquired by Olsten Corp.
That the employee responsible for the project was a foreign national was incidental, Mr. Forman said, explaining that when he hires, he wants "the best and the brightest."
When Congress reconvenes this month, it could make life more toilsome for the Robert Formans of the business world. It will consider sweeping immigration reform legislation with provisions that would make hiring professional-level foreign workers more difficult.
The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, a bipartisan panel, also supports modifying immigration and Labor Department rules that could make it not only more difficult but more costly to hire foreign workers. The proposals of the nine-member panel, headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, have been endorsed by President Clinton.
The momentum in Washington comes as the use of foreign professionals has become more widespread among U.S. companies, health care organizations and universities, and their employment is raising concerns among Americans, many of whom fear they are not getting a fair shot at some skilled jobs.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Manufacturers Association and other business trade groups strongly oppose the congressional moves, arguing that there are not enough skilled U.S. workers to fill jobs in fields including information technology, medical services and academic research.
"There are not enough kids coming out of school who are native Americans with the skills required for today's market," Mr. Forman said. Businesses, he said, need to be able to employ people who have unusual skills and talents to contribute to a company's growth. Moreover, he and others said, as U.S. companies expand globally they need foreign talent to design systems and products that will then be marketed abroad.
"The impact would be, we think, likely horrendous," said Peter Eiby of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "There are certain industries and businesses in certain locations that rely on immigrants to provide the expertise necessary to devise and manufacture products, and sell in the market for which they are intended."
The way many in the business community see it, hiring immigrant professionals has gotten caught up in the nation's emotionally charged fervor over illegal immigration as well as abuses of legal immigration policy. "There is a 'trash the immigrant' public perception, and I don't think people realize that legal immigration is essential," Mr. Eiby said.
Proponents of restricting employment-based immigration said they are concerned that unfettered access to international labor markets will undercut the competitiveness of U.S. workers.
"The point of this legislation is to put the interests of American workers first," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House immigration subcommittee and sponsor of a bill scheduled to go before the Judiciary Committee this month.
But even proponents acknowledge that there is a skills shortage that raises troubling questions that go beyond immigration policy.
"We seem as a society to be unable to recruit technically trained people into our work force from our own population," said former Rep. Bruce Morrison of Connecticut, who was chairman of the House immigration subcommittee and is a member of the immigration advisory panel. "We shouldn't be hoping that people come from elsewhere to be our critical workers."
Another thing all sides agree on is that there are employers who abuse the current regulations and hire foreign professionals as a way to cut labor costs. Last month, the Labor Department reached a major settlement with Syntel Inc., a Michigan-based software company that was accused of paying below-market wages to 40 foreign workers. Syntel agreed to invest $1 million in training for U.S. workers and pay the foreign workers more than $77,000 in back wages.
For Mr. Forman and other business leaders, the Syntel case proves current vigilance works.
"This is what the government is trying to stop, and we totally support that. That type of situation does not create jobs for Americans," Mr. Forman said.
There are 140,000 permanent employment-based visas allocated annually for immigrants and their families. Most of these positions have to be certified by the Labor Department. That means the employer has to prove that an attempt was made to recruit U.S. workers. This number includes 10,000 visas for unskilled workers such as domestics, hotel staff and hospital workers.
Proponents of changing the rules say it is necessary because the current set-up favors employers.
"The laws as currently written don't really protect domestic workers and are tilted perhaps too much on the side of business needs," said Maria Echaveste, administrator of the wage and hour division of the Labor Department. "It is almost automatic if the employer fills out the form, the Department of Labor has no choice but to approve it."
Both Mr. Smith's bill and the commission's recommendations would eliminate all visas for unskilled jobs. "We are allowing tens of thousands of immigrants to come into this country who are unskilled, and they compete with Americans for the same scarce jobs," Mr. Smith said.