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Tomorrow's Citizens?

Workers who come to the United States on temporary work visas face a complicated cultural landscape

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In the ongoing national debate about immigration, much of the controversy focuses on groups that are technically "nonimmigrants": laborers who sign contracts for temporary work in the United States.

H-1B workers are highly skilled professionals and H-2A visa holders provide agricultural labor. While only 200,000 to 250,000 H-1B and H-2A workers enter the United States every year, they are changing the economic profile, cultural landscape and workplaces of North Carolina.

Research Triangle Park attracts hundreds of high-tech workers, and the N.C. Growers Association is the nation's top "supplier" of H-2A help, bringing about 10,000 of the 45,000 workers nationwide to North Carolina in 2000.

The majority of H-1B workers, a group that includes physicians, administrators and scientists, come from China and India. Their contracts commonly last several years and may be renewed. Their median salary, according to the Washington, D.C.-based India Abroad Center for Political Awareness, is $45,000.

In contrast, H-2A guest workers overwhelmingly hail from rural Mexico or the Caribbean. Their employment ebbs and flows seasonally--with the life cycle of crops like tobacco, sweet potatoes and Christmas trees.

In North Carolina, they may be paid the minimum wage, the prevailing wage in their industry, or the state's federally mandated Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), $6.98 for 2000. Stan Eury, executive director of the N.C. Growers Association, says that group's H-2A workers are paid an hourly wage of $7.06, more than a dollar higher than the average pay for farm workers in North Carolina.

Admitting guest workers is one remedy for labor shortages--and, say pro-labor groups, a way to depress pay. They argue that sponsors are able to pay imported labor less. But the growers association's Eury says that's why the government established the AEWR, to set H-2A wages at a rate that would not undercut those of American workers. And he adds that agencies applying for H-2A laborers must test the employment market and demonstrate that there is a definite need for foreign workers.

Evidence shows some shortages do exist. The federal Bureau of Labor statistics projected a 109 percent increase in the need for computer engineers between 1996 and 2006. Low unemployment has also pushed workers from agricultural positions, which, Eury says frankly, are "considered the low-rung types of jobs."

The environments in which H-1Bs and H-2As work and live are markedly different. H-1B workers generally come to urban areas while agricultural workers head to rural communities.

Even how they learn about America varies. Since many H-1Bs work online or have access to the Internet, Web sites can help them find their way.

In June 1999, Michael Voss, who works at Cary e-commerce firm Syntel, came up with an idea. Since the company hires programmers from around the world, Voss heard about the problems they encountered when coming to America.

Jonathan James, who directs Syntel's marketing department, was the first to hear Voss' proposal for a one-stop Web site that could answer questions about immigration and adjustment. Such a site would serve H-1B workers, and also F-1 student visa holders.

Even the most educated computer programmer would need assistance with "how to find a place to live, how to open a checking account, and where to shop," James says.

Eleven months later, New2USA.com was launched from a corner of Syntel's offices, with financial backing from the company and a small staff.

Today the site offers free e-mail, special deals on insurance, message boards and a tool called Global Assistant, which provides checklists for immigration deadlines and customized electronic reminders. It has articles written by freelancers with origins in 25 countries covering money, travel and transportation, housing, careers and education.

New2USA's marketing and communications director, Antone J. Abunassar, says that the site's combination of practical articles and more chatty features have inspired at least two competing Web sites and drawn almost 7,000 members.

"What our members appreciate is the variety of our content," says Abunassar. "It goes from one extreme to another: how-to, real-life information and stories from people who have migrated themselves."

Though the goal of New2USA is to help foreign students and professionals decipher the puzzle of American life, James believes the value of the site goes beyond newcomers.

"There's something that can be used by anyone on the site. For instance, the average American college student can definitely use personal finance information."

But what about other newcomers, like the unskilled workers who arrive under the H-2A visa program?

Carol Brooke is a staff attorney for the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center. She works primarily with farm workers and says that the New2USA format could possibly have another application, as a resource for service providers who work with agricultural laborers throughout the state. After reviewing the site, however, Brooke doubts that many of her clients could benefit from it.

"Clearly, the population I work with are concerned with health, safety and immigration law, and to some extent, housing. But other sections reflect a class difference, for instance, careers and education. The housing information here deals with buying a home, but most unskilled H-2A workers have housing provided by their employers."

She adds that the high levels of English and computer literacy needed to use New2USA and other Web resources mean that the materials are virtually inaccessible for temporary workers who aren't literate in their own tongues.

Grassroots organizing and personal interaction remain the dominant ways of communicating with farm labor. Dispersing fliers or written materials doesn't work, Brooke says, because workers may not be able to read them or may be intimidated by their employers.

Noah Pickus, a professor of public policy studies at Duke and an immigration specialist, adds that the New2USA site "points out that even the most sophisticated person still faces all sorts of complexities."

But the biggest complexity, says Pickus, is where the United States and North Carolina are heading with their immigration policies.

"Not long ago, we were seeing politicians, even moderates, saying that we needed to cut back on immigration. Then Bill Gates says he needs more programmers and Boom!--we increase the number of high-tech workers coming in."

Coming to Duke from California, Pickus has seen the dichotomy between high-skilled and low-skilled foreign or immigrant work forces before.

"It's remarkable when you look at this area; it's changing in two distinct ways: the influx of technical workers centered at RTP and the low-skilled workers. What goes on at RTP with H-1B visas is not inseparable from what's going on down the street from me," where Latinos are opening a new tienda.

"So the question is, how is North Carolina going to deal with that? Is [admitting high-tech workers] an economic policy or a civic policy? Are we looking at them as economic goods, or are we preparing them for citizenship?"

New2USA doesn't promote staying in the United States but provides some information for those weighing permanent residency or citizenship. Pickus suggests that having a professional visa should be considered the first step to gaining citizenship.

"The H-1B visa program is misleading to me, in that it's basically a conditional green card. So why don't we say that?"

Pickus believes that if the United States decides to base its immigration policy on education and skill, rather than family reunification, today's H-1B workers will be tomorrow's citizens. The flip side of that is that H-2A workers seeking citizenship would have little chance of getting it.

In the future, Pickus says, there needs to be larger dialogue about the wisdom of employment-based immigration programs.

"Is it a good thing that we have people coming in practically tethered to their employers for a period of time? Instead of coming to America, it's the employer saying 'they're coming to work for me.'"

As long as there's an economic boom and North Carolina remains a top agricultural producer, Stan Eury says there will be H-2A workers here. And he sees that as a good thing, though he admits that the general public might not agree.

"John Q. Public doesn't know anything about the H-2A program" and is likely to think that agricultural laborers are all undocumented. But he says "surveys indicate that most people don't want open borders. [H-2A programs] are a way to bring people into this country legally and temporarily. We know where our 10,000 workers are, but there are 340,000 migrants in this state.

"Do we know where all the other 330,000 are?"

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