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High-tech, higher education both need immigration reform


parsons-david(April 19, 2012) — As Congress and President Obama work toward reforming immigration, many scientists in labs at the University of Washington are watching carefully to see how their futures will be impacted.

More than a third of UW graduate researchers are immigrants, and about half of post-doctoral scholars, approximately 500, work on temporary visas. Not unlike workers in agriculture, they are an unnoticed, integral part of our local economy. As a global work force they drive the research pipeline that fuels innovation and economic growth.

Unions and community organizations have long worked to empower immigrant workers by pushing for full workplace protections and a clear path to citizenship. And as comprehensive immigration reform gains momentum, reforms need to be guided by a commitment to workers’ rights in every sector of the economy, including high tech and higher education.

When my organization, United Auto Workers Local 4121, helps people organize in workplaces with large immigrant populations, we bargain for contractual protection from capricious firings and unequal pay. But the temporary visa system stifles full equality by splitting workers into two tiers: those who rely on their employer to stay in the country and those who don’t. Not only do second-tier workers have less power to speak out in the workplace, but employer sponsorship means they also cannot choose to switch jobs or develop their ideas into a startup company.

As multiple analysts have observed, this employer-centered system makes it harder for all workers, foreign and domestic, to maintain protections and living standards that have been established through decades of effort. Without equal rights and mobility for everyone, wage erosion and an unstable job market inevitably follow.

Congress can do its part by erasing this two-tiered inequality. While critics are right to scrutinize proposals that dramatically increase the cap on temporary workers, such as the Immigration Innovation Act introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the solution is not to decrease the number of foreign workers working on temporary visas.

Science requires constant diversification and enrichment, and immigrants have had a net-positive effect on job creation and innovation. The key to worker-centered reform is to balance the system for temporary work visas so that employers do not have full control over their workers’ immigration status. Worker-centered reforms can continue to fuel innovation, while also creating more stable jobs that incentivize young scientists to pursue careers here.

This kind of reform can also spur economic growth. We can see what’s possible by considering exceptional cases of immigrant researchers who have built businesses, despite the current cumbersome immigration restraints, that help us see what’s possible through reform.

In 2002, immigrant Krishna Nadella, who had earned his master’s degree from the UW, developed his work as a graduate research assistant into a business called MicroGREEN, which turns discarded plastic bottles into recyclable beverage cups. MicroGREEN has created more than 50 manufacturing jobs in Puget Sound and hopes to expand by another 150 by year end. But Nadella needed a U.S. citizen willing to co-found the business and an attorney to help him navigate the maze of legal obstacles to realize his dream. Smart reform can minimize the obstacles faced by immigrant researchers.

Today’s immigrant researchers work in a system that tilts against them, particularly where they lack union protection. Through grass-roots efforts we can help strengthen their voice at work. Congress can help by enacting reforms that provide the same rights and opportunities for all.

David Parsons is president of UAW Local 4121, the union for more than 4,000 academic student employees at the University of Washington. This column, which originally appeared in The Seattle Times, is reposted here with the author’s permission.

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