'Americans First' Act casts shadow over academy

Protectionist law could make life difficult for foreign academics. Jon Marcus reports

May 14, 2009

A form of protectionism making its way into federal law in the United States has raised concerns about the continued ability of universities to employ international scholars.

Massive government subsidies for banks, car manufacturers and others include a little-noticed provision called the Employ American Workers Act. Added quietly by Congress, it requires that firms give preference to hiring Americans.

A similar proposal now being discussed would also tighten the rules for "H1B" temporary employment visas for highly educated workers.

Neither measure applies directly to US universities and colleges, which have a total of 126,123 international scholars on their books, including 2,877 British academics. But some worry that an "Americans First" movement could make it harder to hire academics from abroad.

"I'd say there is concern about the Act's impact on international scholars, but it's hard to say exactly what we should expect it to be," said Victor Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

"If the question is whether this is symbolic of a trend away from hiring international scholars, and whether foreigners who seek H1B visas should be concerned about that, my answer would be not as much as they think they should."

Nevertheless, he added, "perception is reality. We are in the economic times we are in, and members of Congress are going to do what they are going to do. I hope it is more of a bubble than a trend."

Lorenda Schrader, director of international student and scholar advising at Indiana University, said that legislators' reactions to the concerns raised about the Act have not been reassuring.

She said their response was: "'You know what? We get what you're saying. We know you're talking about highly skilled workers. But the labour unions are very powerful and there's no way politically that we can make it easier for internationals to work in the US. In fact, we're making it harder.'"

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Two senators, Bernard Sanders, an independent representing Vermont, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a Republican, have now proposed bipartisan legislation that would prohibit employers from hiring further H1B visa holders under certain conditions.

H1Bs are designed to allow foreign skilled workers to be hired when Americans with the same skills are in short supply. More than a third of international scholars at US universities are on H1Bs.

Mr Grassley said: "It's wrong to bring in H1B workers if we have workers here, and it's more unconscionable when you have a recession going on."

Hiring foreign workers under the H1B visa programme requires that scrupulously documented searches be undertaken first to see if Americans are qualified for the jobs. The Government has cracked down on private firms that failed to conduct searches or faked them, and Ms Schrader said that universities were being far more careful as a result.

"That's already having an impact. We have a couple of cases where current employees on H1B visas are now filing for permanent residency, and if they weren't hired correctly in the first place, their positions have to be readvertised," she said.

"With the university laying off employees, there may be more qualified Americans on the market for some of those jobs now" than when foreign employees were first hired, she added.

"There are more hoops to jump through. You have to prove there aren't Americans available. I understand Congress' point of view. It can't risk looking like it is not protecting US workers. I understand, but it sure doesn't help us," she said.

Others insisted that the political pressure posed no immediate problems for the higher education sector. "It is too early to tell whether the economic crisis will have an impact on US higher education hiring from abroad," said Andy Brantley, president of Cupa-HR, the association of university human resources officers.

"As of now, the Government has not made changes to the H1B visa exclusions that are applicable to US colleges and universities, so the federal guidelines applicable to them have not changed."

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of international scholars employed by US higher education institutions rose 8 per cent in 2007-08, the last academic year for which figures are available.

Allan Goodman, the IIE's president, said: "I think the market will continue to be robust, because American universities need to draw on a global brain pool, especially in the sciences.

"Scientific laboratories on these campuses are international, and they are going to continue to look to employ staff broadly and deeply."

Nevertheless, if the recession is prolonged and if other factors play a part, such as recent fears about a global swine flu pandemic, "those things could change the way people think and behave", Mr Goodman said.

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