Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Skilled Foreign Worker, Houston Variety

The New York Times has been running a wide-ranging series it calls “Remade in America: The Newest Immigrants and their Impact,”* and Sunday before last it examined the H1-B program, under which U.S. companies can temporarily import skilled foreigners to work, generally at what the Times calls “better paying jobs” in the high-tech industry (or, to be more accurate, at Indian outsourcing firms). The popular conception of the H1-B worker is that he or she is Indian (as is the super-genius Google worker who was the anecdotal hook for the Times piece; he had his visa but his wife doesn’t and must live in Canada while he commutes for conjugal visits from the California---that was the boo-hoo slant of the tale), or Chinese or Russian and possesses the math and science skills native Americans are too obtuse, lazy or just generally uninterested to acquire (or push their kids to acquire).** An accompanying graphic showing counties where there were large number of H1-B applications last year generally confirmed that notion: In Los Angeles, the largest corporate applicant was RJT Compuquest, in Miami-Dade it was Fortune Technologies, in Dallas it was Tech Mahnindra and in Collin County it was Infosys Technologies, headquartered in some place called Bangalore. In fact, the largest seeker of H1-B applications in every major metropolitan area listed by the Times was a high-tech company or institution, except for ...

Harris County, Texas. The largest applicant for temporary visas for skilled workers here in 2008 was … HISD, the taxpayer-supported government entity that is Houston’s largest employer. And who are these badly needed, highly skilled foreign workers? We can’t find any hard figures, but it’s safe to assume that many if not most are the “bilingual” elementary teachers that the school district has been hauling here from Mexico by the truckload, although “bilingual” is a glaring misnomer because so many of these "bilingualists" lack the English-language skills that would permit them to pass, say, a middle-school TAKS reading or writing test (we’re not exaggerating here---ask around, check it out yo’sef). They’re cannon fodder for a program that, as most any veteran and half-aware native-English-speaking educator (white, black or Hispanic) will privately tell you, is untenable to the point of absurdity, especially in a district that is now catering to growing numbers of immigrants (primarily Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners---most of them legal) who aren’t accorded the costly privilege of being taught for years in their native tongue.

As is often the case, these incidental statistical tracings give you a better picture of what Houston is really like, and what it’s becoming, than most anything you’ll read in the daily newspaper, or in a Greater Houston Partnership publication.*

*Check out last Sunday’s installment, which somewhat surprisingly for the Times offered an unflinching and relatively non-sentimental portrayal of an American-born child of Hispanic immigrants who lives in the D.C. suburbs. It’s not an, uh, elevating story. (The Times, of course, locates the problem in the supposed lack of resources devoted to tending to these kids in the suburban setting.)

**We’re guilty.

***The emerging paradigm is, of course, Mexico City, with slightly better air.

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