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Ed Frauenheim

Staff Writer, CNET

Technology companies were among the U.S. businesses that most aggressively sought to make foreign workers permanent U.S. residents last year, a labor group charged Wednesday.

The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, citing government data, said software giant Microsoft pursued a key approval in the immigration process for 1,203 foreign workers, more than twice the number of any other U.S. company. Oracle, Intel and IBM also were among the top 10 employers seeking the approvals, according to the alliance, also known as WashTech.

Those attempts amount to a slap in the face of the American worker, given the relatively high unemployment rate among techies and continued job losses in the field, said Marcus Courtney, WashTech’s president.

The question, Courtney said, is “are employers taking advantage of immigrants to saturate the labor market and drive down wages for employees?”

Neither Oracle nor IBM immediately offered comment on the WashTech claims. A Microsoft representative said the company doesn’t provide the relevant data publicly and hadn’t verified WashTech’s numbers. But the company indicated in a statement that it does “aggressively hire domestic workers.” But, the statement said, “to remain competitive in the global marketplace…Microsoft and other IT firms also need access to professional talent from around the world.”

Gail Dundas, a spokeswoman for semiconductor titan Intel, could not immediately confirm WashTech’s data. But she said the kind of foreign workers Intel hires in the United States typically have graduate degrees and focus on specific skill areas such as optics and advanced lithography. She said those kinds of skills cannot be quickly picked up by an unemployed software programmer. “We first do a vigorous search for a qualified U.S. worker,” she said.

WashTech’s information concerns a piece of the immigration process known as permanent labor certification, which requires an employer to show it was unable to fill a job with an American worker.

The U.S. Labor Department, which oversees the process, could not immediately confirm WashTech’s data.

Foreigners historically have earned a large percentage of technology-related doctorates in the United States. According to national data, foreign students with temporary visas accounted for 55 percent of the 5,265 engineering PhDs last year.

But WashTech’s Courtney argued that Intel’s claim of not being able to find qualified U.S. workers doesn’t hold water given the number of out-of-work technology professionals ready to do the jobs or who could be trained. “It defies the economic facts on the ground,” he said.

According to U.S. Labor Department data, an average of 8,000 electrical and electronics engineers were unemployed last year. The unemployment rate for electrical and electronics engineers averaged 2.2 percent last year, compared with 1.3 percent in 2000. The unemployment rate for computer software engineers averaged 3.3 percent in 2004, compared with 1.7 percent in 2000.

Permanent residency is one way U.S. employers can bring foreigners to work in the country. Another method is the H-1B visa, which lets skilled foreigners work in the United States for up to six years. Some employers have imported workers with an H-1B and then sponsored those employees for permanent residency–which is often referred to as getting a green card. Dundas said in some cases H-1B visa holders at Intel are sponsored by the company for permanent residency.

The H-1B visa program was revised and expanded late last year. It remains controversial.

According to WashTech, for the year ended Sept. 30, Oracle pursued labor certifications for 447 foreign workers, while Intel made the request for 297 and IBM did so for 168. The information also shows that the Labor Department certified 529 workers for Microsoft, 248 for Oracle, 143 for Intel and 96 for IBM.

Courtney said the fact that so many workers were certified by the Labor Department indicates the government isn’t doing enough to protect American workers. “The Department of Labor acts as a rubber stamp,” he said.

A Labor Department official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.