Commentary | Immigration

Enforcement needed in H-1B Visa laws

The H-1B visa program was designed to allow U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in special circumstances when they could not find an American citizen who qualified for the job.

By that definition, it sounds like a reasonable way to allow high-skilled guest workers into the country, but there is a major problem: The companies, usually in the high-tech sector, that hire these workers from abroad are not required to exhaust the pool of American workers first. Many that rely heavily on H-1B workers have admitted to using this guest worker program as a way to lower their labor costs.

More than two years ago, EPI’s report, Outsourcing America’s Technology and Knowledge Jobs, outlined how multiple loopholes and generally poor enforcement had seriously eroded the original intent of the H-1B program. Today, as U.S. unemployment rises at an alarming rate, reform in the H-1B visa law is badly needed. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who recently reintroduced reform legislation, along with Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) argues that the H-1B visa program “should complement the U.S. workforce, not replace it.”

Along with displacing American technology workers, EPI’s report found that the H-1B visa program also had the effect of decreasing wages for guest workers, and discouraging young people in the U.S. from pursuing careers in science and engineering. Although there is a common assumption that U.S. employers search for American workers before hiring from abroad, no such labor test exists and the government has no audit process for uncovering abuse. Even the Department of Labor has stated that H-1B workers “may be hired even when a qualified U.S. worker wants the job.” Far from being a course of last resort, H-1B hires are often the first route companies pursue. Some companies have even advertised jobs expressly for H-1B visa holders.

Why would they do so? Even though employers are supposed to pay their H-1B workers the same wages they would pay an American, they can easily skirt that rule and in interviews with the Government Accountability Office, some have admitted to doing so. Tata Consultancy Services, for example, has said that the wages it pays H-1B visa holders are 20% to 25% less than what comparably skilled American workers would earn.

Such revelations suggest that the visa program, as it is implemented today, may be almost as bad for the guest workers as it is for displaced American workers. Another common misperception about the program is that guest workers use it as a path to citizenship. In fact, companies that hire foreign workers rarely sponsor them for green cards, instead keeping them in a state of limbo, where they have little power to fight for higher wages or better working conditions.

Current law allows some 65,000 H-1B workers in the country, though during the dot-com boom earlier this decade, that number rose as high as 195,000. And while high-tech companies such as Oracle and Microsoft and Google maintain there is often no comparable talent to be found in the U.S., those assertions are getting harder to justify. The San Jose Mercury News recently reported that high-tech companies in Santa Clara, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley, announced more than 20,000 job cuts during the first quarter of this year. It said that nationwide, there have been more than 84,000 high-tech job cuts.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, some groups continue to dismiss calls for reform. The American Immigration Lawyers Association went so far as to call EPI’s research “venomous and inflammatory.” In the attached letter, Ray Marshall, author of Immigration for Shared Prosperity, addresses that attack.

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