The following is from the April 1, 2008, edition of The Dallas Morning News. SMU Anthropology Professor Caroline Brettell provided expertise for this story and is the co-author of the book that is its forcus.
By JIM LANDERS
High-tech companies looking for high-skilled immigrants put in their visa applications today. Once again, demand for these H-1B visas will quickly outstrip the number offered by the federal government.
Most U.S. high-tech employment goes to engineering and computer science graduates of U.S. universities. For many years, though, employers say they've needed to hire foreign-born students or workers from abroad because they can't otherwise find enough qualified job candidates.
Hence, H-1B visas.
Whatever you think about this quota on imported quality, America's information technology boom helps explain America's immigration boom.
Twenty-First Century Gateways, a new book on immigration featuring the Dallas experience, shows how highly educated Asians drawn to technology jobs spurred growth that created opportunities in construction and other services for less skilled immigrants, mainly from Mexico.
"What I call high-capital immigrants, with higher education and skills, they're drawn to certain things driven by the high-tech economy. But on their heels ... the lower unskilled or semiskilled service jobs come," said SMU anthropology professor Caroline Brettell, who helped write and edit Gateways.
Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution in Washington, another of Gateways' editors and writers, said the relationship between immigration and technology industries showed up across the country.
"High-tech tells the story of what happened," she said. "Higher-skilled immigrants were a cause of growth that created another economic opportunity where lower-skilled immigrants could find jobs."
In the 1990s and in the first five years of this decade, new immigration gateways emerged in Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Washington, Phoenix, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Sacramento, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C.
The tech sector makes a large footprint in nearly all of those cities. Traditional tech centers such as San Francisco, Seattle and Boston are also traditional immigration gateways, but they lost some of their dominance because of a high cost of living that pushed immigrants to look elsewhere.
Dallas has only recently served as an immigrant gateway. In 1970, Dr. Brettell notes, just 2 percent of the city's population was foreign-born. The suburbs were equally devoid of immigrants. By 2000, nearly one-fourth of Dallas residents came from another country.
Richardson became home for many early Indian and Chinese immigrants, and that settlement pattern now extends to Plano and Collin County. Typically, they came for graduate studies in engineering at American universities, got jobs through H-1B visas and stayed through naturalization.
Many of the area's Mexican immigrants came without such documents and without advanced educations. They've settled across the area in much larger numbers than the high-skilled Asian immigrants.
Dr. Brettell's research included a poll of 600 immigrants in Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties. She found that 61.7 percent of Indian males and 31.7 percent of Indian females held professional jobs.
The largest number of Mexican male immigrants – 29.4 percent – worked construction jobs.
In Austin, demographers studied the educational attainment of immigrants and found that Asian immigrants usually had at least one college degree, while most Mexican immigrants lacked a high school diploma.
The tech boom reached an apex in 2000 before stumbling. Immigration is only now showing signs of slowing. That's partly due to the nationwide bursting of a housing bubble, which has slowed the homebuilding industry. It's also a reflection of a national unease with immigration. The unease shows up in many ways, including an annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas.
Tech companies such as Microsoft, Texas Instruments and Intel have tried to convince Congress that the visa cap forces more of their work overseas.
There are many trade-offs involved, however, and the challenge of dealing with them is falling on local governments in parts of the nation with little experience as immigrant destinations.
# # #