Over the last two decades, concern about what kinds of immigrants come to the U.S. focused largely on excluding those traditionally viewed as least desirable– uneducated, unskilled and illegal immigrants. Most research regarding immigration has shared this focus. But increasingly in recent years, the scope of U.S. immigration policy debate has expanded to encompass questions about the desirability of highly skilled immigrants and temporary workers. These high-skill newcomers boast education, training and talent that could benefit the U.S. economically. But some members of the public, advocates and policy makers fear that this same social and economic capital may threaten U.S. interests by creating competition with American-born workers.
This tension between dual goals–attracting immigrants with the skills to assimilate and contribute economically while ensuring that they do not displace or otherwise harm U.S. workers–was reflected in Congressional wrangling over the number and kind of permanent visas to be issued for employment-based immigration under the Immigration Act of 1990 (Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1991). It arose again in debate over the Immigration Act of 1996, which initially included ultimately unsuccessful proposals to curtail both employment-based permanent immigration and temporary worker visas (Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1997).
But nowhere has this tension been more evident than in the ongoing Congressional debate over the H-1B program, which allows high-tech and other skilled workers into the U.S. for stays of up to several years. The H-1B debate has pitted business leaders who argue that U.S. is suffering from an economically damaging shortage of qualified workers in critical fields like information technology against representatives of labor who counter that the U.S. is caving into the demands of employers who would rather hire cheap foreign labor than train or re-train available U.S. workers (House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, 1998; Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998).
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