When Michaël Bonnal first came to the United States in 2001 from France, he only wanted to complete a master's degree.
Eight years later, he's an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, one of seven employees at the university with an H-1B visa, designed for workers in specialty occupations.
Dr. Bonnal said foreign workers like himself, who have received an education in the United States, have a lot to give back.
"Any country that wants to attract the best in any field, a program like this can allow this ... human capital into the U.S.," he said.
But with the unemployment rate rising, employers might find it more difficult to hire specialized foreign immigrants under the H1-B visa, experts say.
"If there are less jobs out there, then there are going to be less jobs for foreign workers as well as for Americans," said Robert Divine, the Chattanooga-based chairman of the immigration group for the Baker Donelson law firm.
Jobs that bring H-1B workers include physical therapists, medical technologists, pharmacists, engineers and Spanish teachers.
A worker with an H-1B status can remain in the United States for up to six years at a time. After that, he must remain outside the country for one year before another petition can be approved.
There's also the possibility of getting an extension to the six years under different conditions.
The jobless rate in metropolitan Chattanooga rose to 8.1 percent in January and in metropolitan Dalton it's up to 12 percent, mostly a result of the sagging carpet and flooring industry.
WHO GETS THE JOBS?
Because of those numbers, there is controversy surrounding H1-B visas. Critics say the program gives jobs to foreigners instead of Americans.
Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, an immigration-reduction group, said it simply doesn't make any sense to keep bringing in foreign workers when Americans are losing their jobs.
"We would like to see the rules for H-1B tightened up considerably so only foreign workers who have exceptional skills can get these visas," he said. "Right now is a program full of loopholes and fraud."
Mr. Beck said a lot of employers simply hire foreign students right out of college because it's a lot cheaper than hiring a 40-year-old with experience.
This program "is primarily about age discrimination," he said.
In Dr. Bonnal's case, while economics professors might not seem that difficult to find among Americans, officials at UTC say the job is specialized enough to fit under H-1B rules.
"The work of a college professor requires specialized training, the ability to apply theoretical and practical application of that specialized knowledge and the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree, thereby making it eligible for H-1B status," according to UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell.
During the last couple of years, the cap for the H-1B program has been reached the first day employers are allow to submit their petitions. But that might start to change, said Mr. Divine, also a former chief counsel of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"This year it may be that the demand will be more in line with the supply (available visas)," he said.
For the next two years, all employers that received funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program will have stricter requirements for hiring workers under the H-1B program. They must prove they've made an effort to hire a U.S. worker and attest they are not displacing or replacing U.S. workers, not a current requirement for this visa.
H-1B workers are at a disadvantage because if they lose their jobs they must return to their native country, said Vivek Wadhwa, an executive resident at Duke University and senior research associate at Harvard University.
"It's bad for Americans also, but they don't have to leave the country if they get laid off," he said.
With layoffs, thousands of highly skilled people are returning home, he said.
"And when the economy does recover, the problem is that these people won't be here when we need them," he said.
Once layoffs happen, it's very hard to argue to the U.S. worker that you need international workers to do the job, said Terry Olsen, a local immigration attorney.
"Even though one could argue the H-1B program is not exactly about just creating jobs, it also helps us to get companies to locate here," he added.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is among several local companies that make use of the H-1B program, but spokesman Scott Wilson said he can't speculate on how the economy might affect the company's ability to hire these foreign workers.
The company has 28 employees under the H-1B visa in positions, including analyst programmers and systems analysts.