Over the past five years, companies based or active in Greater Sacramento applied for more than 2,000 permanent worker certifications for foreign-born employees -- known as "green cards" -and about 75 percent of them have been granted, according to federal applications data obtained by the Business Journal.
Nearly three-fourths of all the applications came from a single company, but some major employers didn't show up at all. It's unclear whether that's because they filed their applications from other sites, had other companies handle their applications, or simply didn't seek green cards. The application data covered companies that listed an address in Sacramento, Davis, Folsom or Roseville, and a period from Oct. 1, 1999 to Sept. 30, 2004.
The numbers add some definition to a continuing industry debate over how extensively tech employers use foreign workers to fill U.S. jobs. Critics call the practice a source of inexpensive labor, while tech industry leaders say they need green-card workers to have full access to the world's most talented scientists, and sometimes to fill specialized jobs that would otherwise go empty.
The Folsom campus of Intel Corp. applied for the lion's share locally, seeking green cards from that site for foreign workers in California and seven other states. Nearly 800 were for workers at Intel's California sites -- more than half of the 1,494 it filed during the period -- but the federal data don't specify whether they worked at the Santa Clara headquarters, in Folsom or elsewhere.
Intel did not respond when asked to estimate its green-card tally for its Folsom campus, which employs 6,500 workers handling research and development, marketing and other tasks.
Of 798 applications for California workers during the five-year span, Intel won certification for 659, about 83 percent. Intel's success rate approached 86 percent for job sites in other states, with 597 approvals out of 696 applications.
Local companies in high-tech consulting, dentistry, energy and the two largest local universities -California State University Sacramento and UC Davis -- filled out the top 10, but their combined total was dwarfed by Intel's tally.
Hewlett-Packard Co., the Palo Alto-based tech giant which employs fewer than 4,000 people in Roseville, was conspicuously absent from the local applications; H-P makes such filings from its human resources center in Sunnyvale, but comparable green-card application data for the company were not immediately available.
A company spokeswoman did not respond when asked how many Roseville employees have green-card certifications or whether companies supplying H-P with contract employees apply for green cards for foreign workers.
Applying for a green card is the next logical step for foreign workers with temporary work visas -dubbed H-1B visas -- which are good for three to six years. Federal records show that Greater Sacramento employers sought at least 2,700 H-1B applications from October 2001 to October 2004.
One reason Intel employs a lot of foreign-born tech workers, said spokeswoman Gail Dundas, is because the science programs of U.S. colleges and universities are full of them.
"More than 50 percent of the folks coming out of U.S. universities are foreign nationals to start with," she said. "Those would have been the people we would sponsor for green cards."
Dundas is quick to note that Intel sees a need to get more science and math students coming up through the American education system. She said that's why it spends more than $100 million annually on schools. The idea is to help inspire more U.S. kids to pursue a math and science-based career.
She also rejects the notion that companies like Intel can get more brain-power for their buck by hiring foreign nationals. "The argument that you could pay less just doesn't hold water," she said. "We certainly pay them competitively with those that do not hold H-1B visas."
Dundas said unemployed U.S. techies who have complained they've been pushed out of jobs are "typically software engineers -- we're not hiring that type."
Green-card applications by Intel covered engineering jobs in software, electronics, electronics design, systems software, electrical design and computer hardware, and programmer analysts, computer system analysts, computer programmers, database design analysts, testing, industrial, manufacturing, mechanical, packaging, quality control, sales, systems analyst and tech support.
"Frankly, these people are very sought after because of their highly specialized level of skill and education," Dundas said, adding that Intel makes extensive efforts to hire Americans for its jobs. If it can't, a foreign national with those skills is hired.
Sparring over ads
Those efforts are a point of contention. The government requires companies seeking a green card for a worker to post ads for the job the worker would hold. The notices go up at the job site and in local newspapers.
For workers who need a degree, companies advertise with on-campus recruiters, in professional journals, with employee referral programs, in radio and TV announcements, on the employer's Web page and at other job sites. If the company deems it has no qualified applicants from the ads, it documents that and asks the government to approve a green card.
Kim Berry, a local engineer and tech labor activist, believes the advertising requirements are a sham, part of a virtual rubber-stamping of applications by the government. He suspects that the job ads are written by attorneys hired to craft a description matching the exact qualifications of the foreign national already on the job, likely on a temporary work visa. That would let the company dismiss local applicants as unqualified and seek a green card for the foreign worker.
Berry says there is no shortage of qualified U.S. tech workers. "These are American jobs that they are giving away," he said.
Berry closely tracks technology job ads in The Sacramento Bee, and said he's seen "dozens" in recent years that have all the characteristics of ones designed to exclude American workers. As for Intel, he said, "There have been no Intel help-wanted ads in the Sunday Bee for at least two years."
Joel Stewart, a Miami attorney who specializes in foreign labor law, defends the recently updated green-card application system as a legitimate way for companies to staff when American workers can't meet their needs.
On the pay issue, he said, "There is absolutely no way an H-1B or (green-card) worker can be paid less than the prevailing wage. The prevailing wage is very strictly and rigorously determined and applied" by the U.S. Labor Department.
"Everyone in the business" considers the prevailing wages too high, he said, rather than too low.
Stewart also said the tailoring of job ads to a foreign national's résumé, in order to get that person a green card, is scrutinized by the government. Applications from companies that do that, he said, "cannot be approved, in my view."
"In all honesty," he said, the Department of Labor "has made the immigration process very difficult and restrictive. Those that prevail are the ones with the most motivation, highest qualifications, and (who) wish to work honestly in the United States."
A 2000 article available on the ILW.com immigration law site, entitled "Legal Rejection of U.S. Workers" and credited to Stewart, concludes "When employers feel the need to legalize aliens, it may be due to a shortage of suitable U.S. workers, but even in a depressed economy, employers who favor aliens have an arsenal of legal means to reject all U.S. workers who apply."