The Orange County high-tech firm hunted in the West when it wanted to hire an advanced computer engineer a couple of years ago.
But in the end, AST Research plucked the most impressive candidate out of the East--the Far East, that is--from its own Hong Kong subsidiary.
“We just had a heck of a time finding someone here who we were comfortable could perform with the new, state-of-the-art techniques,” recalled Howard Derman, director of human resources at the Irvine computer maker.
AST’s experience was not unique. Just as nations have long shipped lumber, oil and wheat across each other’s boundaries, a trade in highly skilled personnel is emerging in today’s global economy.
Dizzying Entry Rules
More and more American companies are enticing the best and brightest from overseas to fill key jobs, but the employers are finding it is not easy. Even when there are few Americans suited for the opening, a dizzying set of U.S. immigration rules must be met by a firm that wishes to hire or transfer a foreigner.
“We’re hearing from an increasing number of companies that immigration problems are getting in the way of their ability to compete internationally,” said Virginia Thomas, a lobbyist for the U. S. Chamber of Commerce.
In one case involving a San Francisco concern, a Hong Kong national was denied a type of U. S. working visa on the grounds that he was not a professional. His job title: company president.
In another case, complex immigration rules discouraged a Los Angeles consulting firm from hiring a Japanese woman for an important job, even though her knowledge of Asia made her the top candidate.
“What we have are a set of laws that are totally restrictive and archaic and have no bearing on business reality at all,” complained Daryl Buffenstein, an attorney who specializes in immigration issues.
Sushi Chefs to Models
Such hassles are felt most keenly in highly technical fields for which the U.S. labor supply is limited, areas such as engineering, computer science and mathematics. They also may cause headaches for a whole range of employers, including restaurants in search of sushi chefs, agencies for fashion models and even promoters of rock music.
At the root of the issue are two opposing forces, one that is shaping the future and one that lingers from the past, embodied in America’s 1986 immigration law.
The new force arises from the emergence of a world economy increasingly affected by advances in technology and communications that ignore national borders. This climate has fostered a boom in trade, with companies both large and small vying for business--and talented employees--in Asia, North America and Europe.
In Southern California, for example, 16% of the executives recruited last year came from other countries, according to a February survey conducted by Russell Reynolds Associates. The executive placement firm queried 129 companies on the question, which dealt with managers who earn more than $50,000 a year.
“Perhaps the first international class is not the laboring class, but the professional class,” said Lucie Cheng, director of the Center for Pacific Rim Studies at UCLA. Cheng predicted a growing movement of professionals between countries as skilled workers enjoy new job options in nations outside their own. “We see this as a long-term trend,” she added.
Yet if a new age of global commerce is dawning, the United States and other nations continue to take a strict view toward limiting foreign employees. A surge of migration from poor countries to the affluent ones has reinforced this sentiment in recent years.
Purpose of Nation-State
“That’s what a nation-state is for--to promote the interests of the people who belong to it, in this case the American workers,” said David E. Simcox, director of the Center For Immigration Studies, a Washington research group.
In order to fulfill that mission, Congress has approved a bewildering set of guidelines to determine which foreigners can work in this country, and for how long. Moreover, the bureaucracy--the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Departments of Labor and State--can move at glacial speed. In the worst cases, applications take years.
There are rules for admitting foreign nationals who have exceptional abilities in the arts and sciences (the INS once counseled that they need not be as skilled as conductor Leopold Stokowski), executives, students and others.
Often, prospective employers must try to prove that there are no American candidates.
Disputes arise frequently. A Los Angeles attorney recalled his travails with one immigration official who was a former border patrolman. At issue was whether a European fashion model was renowned enough to qualify for a certain type of visa.
Definitions of Fame
“How are you going to explain it to him?” asked the attorney, Carl M. Shusterman, himself a former INS official. “Does he sit home and read German and Italian magazines?”
Not that immigration officials are always the bad guys barring the gate to deserving foreigners. American employers often try to manipulate the crazy-quilt of rules to their own advantage.
To get certain visas, for instance, employers sometimes claim that a competent--if unspectacular--recruit has been blessed with exceptional merit and ability. “You have to stretch it,” said one attorney who has argued many immigration cases. “Otherwise, you don’t have a prayer of bringing the guy in.”
An area of growing dispute is the meaning of professional, a sought-after designation that greatly speeds up the process of permanent immigration--and may be the only way that certain temporary workers can enter the United States.
Usually, the INS has demanded that an individual in this group have a college degree. Thus it rejected See Soo Chuan, president of Hong Kong T.V. Video, a San Francisco distributor of video cassettes with annual sales exceeding $8 million.
Equal to Master’s Degree
The Hong Kong-affiliated company fought back in U.S. District Court. It called on a professor who testified that Soo had knowledge of business equivalent to a master’s degree. A federal judge reversed the ruling last March.
To those who believe immigration is good for the U. S. economy, the myriad technical obstacles make little sense.
The entry of foreigners “increases the stock of talented scientists, inventors, engineers and managers who boost the productivity, which raises the U. S. standard of living and improves competitiveness,” Julian L. Simon, a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland, said.
Certainly, talent from overseas is playing an expanding role in U.S. science and technology. A 1988 study conducted by the National Academy of Engineering found that perhaps half of all highly advanced engineers--those who entered the work force with doctorates--were foreign nationals.
Important, research-oriented industries in this country “are, in fact, dependent upon foreign talent” and that dependency is growing, the academy reported.
Don’t expect much change: Foreign students often make up half the enrollment in advanced scientific and technical programs in the United States. In many engineering doctorate programs, a majority are from other countries.
American engineering students, by contrast, are often lured into the work force by attractive salaries before they reach the advanced-degree level.
The academy suggested two ways to alter this state of affairs. Both would cost money, however, and the sources of funds are unclear.
An immediate step, the researchers found, would be to set up more graduate fellowships for U.S. engineering students. The new positions would offer stipends competitive with the sort of pay that has been enticing American students away from graduate studies.
The long-term prescription was far more ambitious: Upgrade America’s educational system and produce more students with a deep interest in science and technology.
Filling a Gap
“If they (foreign engineers) weren’t there, we’d have to invent them,” said Alan Fechter, executive director of the National Research Council’s office of scientific and engineering personnel. “They’re filling slots that need to be filled and doing work that needs to be done.”
He added: “It’s not foreign-born engineers who are the problem. It’s the Americans who are not going on for graduate training.”
The sort of engineer that AST Research of Orange County needed was one who completely understood the internal design of personal computers. AST first sought American applicants by advertising the job in local newspapers and industry publications.
The ads drew roughly 15 responses, which the company forwarded to the Labor Department with explanations of why each candidate fell short of its needs. Only then did it get permission to hire Thomas Ng, 29, from its Hong Kong offices.
“There were some very good engineers in the group,” Derman recalled of the Americans, “but they didn’t meet the requirements we had for this particular job.”
Delays Ruin Prospects
Sometimes, meeting job requirements may not be enough for a foreigner to surmount U. S. entry restrictions.
In the case of the Los Angeles consulting firm and the Japanese woman, the potentially time-consuming immigration procedure killed the deal.
“Sometimes timing is of the essence” in filling a critical vacancy, John Hasegawa, a principal with the Korn-Ferry recruitment firm, said. “If it takes months, that person may no longer be a viable candidate.”
Despite the obstacles, more than 400,000 legal, permanent immigrants arrive in the United States yearly. Of these, some 54,000 are employer-sponsored workers and their families.
In addition to the permanent immigrants, more than 300,000 foreigners--including executives, trainees, investors, athletes, entertainers and others--come for periods as short as a day or as long as several years, government figures show.
Yet their passages used to be simpler. A 1986 change in the immigration law and new INS interpretations make up a “double whammy for business,” according to Angelo A. Paparelli, a Los Angeles attorney who advises corporations.
The 1986 law, which set penalties for employment of undocumented aliens, has made it far less tempting for a firm to close its eyes to the immigration status of foreign employees, even prized ones.
“You can’t do it now,” said Arnold H. Leibowitz, a Washington attorney. “The companies don’t want to be in a position where they’re breaking the law.”
The INS also seems to have gotten tougher in its reading of the law. For example, an executive now must supervise two separate tiers of American employees in order to qualify for entry as a manager--a policy that works against smaller companies.
Comment From INS
An INS spokesman denied the agency had changed its policies, however. Joe Flanders, of the INS in Orange County, said: “Our sole purpose is to see that anybody who enters the country is lawfully inspected under the conditions of the law.”
Certainly, the question of who is allowed to enter the United States--and for what sort of job--remains highly sensitive. In the global economy, a growing number of employers in the United States are foreign-based companies that wish to transfer non-Americans to jobs here.
In one recent case, a Japanese auto maker sought to bring over a Tokyo employee to help select U. S. suppliers of engine parts--a job that requires inside knowledge of the company’s technology, its officials said.
The transfer was approved, but only after the company was asked to show that no American was available for the position. “An American never even would have seen the inside of the (Tokyo) head office,” said Paparelli, who represented the auto maker. Such disputes may become more common, particularly as Japanese firms expand in the United States.
“Over time, skills that are essential--unless they are of a proprietary nature--can often be transferred to U. S. workers,” one U. S. consular official in Tokyo said.
Calls for Flexibility
Business leaders in America, meanwhile, are beginning to call for changes in the immigration rules, and they cite American competitiveness as a key reason.
A new Business Immigration Coalition asked Congress earlier this month to raise the yearly cap on the number of permanent immigrants employers may sponsor to 120,000 from 54,000.
The backlog of applications for such recruits now totals about 128,000, according to the coalition, which includes the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. And pressure is growing: Employers’ requests to the Labor Department for alien workers to immigrate permanently are up 30% since 1986.
What is at stake? More flexible entry rules “can make the difference between a successful project undertaken ahead of the foreign competitors and an also-ran position,” Frank D. Kittredge, a spokesman for the business group, told a Senate immigration subcommittee.
Kittredge added that such “job-offer” immigration brings immediate economic benefit because “there is an actual job at a specific job site to be filled.”
His words will not be the last on the subject, particularly in light of forecasts that the United States will face labor shortages in the coming years.
In earlier days, proponents of immigration cited America as the land of opportunity, but future debate may focus more on the benefits skilled foreigners offer the United States.
“We do well while we’re doing good,” the University of Maryland’s Simon said of America’s open door. “It’s not a charity operation.”