No American immigration program draws as mixed reviews as the H-1B plan that allows U.S. companies to import foreign workers when there are no qualified Americans available to do the same jobs.
Large California high-tech companies like Cisco Systems and Intel love the program, often said to allow in 65,000 workers per year, all of whom must leave immediately if they lose their jobs. In actuality, the total imported often exceeds 90,000 and in 2010 came to 117,409.
The companies constantly pressure Congress to increase the number of visas available, claiming they need imported talent and have used it to fuel their well-publicized successes. They claim America does not have enough qualified, available (read: unemployed or newly graduated from college) workers to fill their demand.
But some U.S. workers, principally members of engineers’ organizations, many of whose members lost jobs during the recession, say H-1Bs are used to drive salaries down at their expense. Fully 16 percent of all H-1B visas go to California companies and their immigrant workers.
For sure, most H-1B workers who lose their jobs whether for recession-related reasons or anything else, actually go home quickly. Nevertheless, a large number stay in the areas to which they were brought, often becoming off-the-books motel clerks or freelance computer instructors paid in cash or personal checks, with income never reported to federal authorities.
That’s a failing, for sure. But the main problem with H-1B visas is that there has never been a test to determine if U.S.workers are available before foreigners are hired and visas issued.
“Do not confuse H-1B demand with labor demand – they’re not the same thing,” Jared Bernstein, author of a Brookings Institution report on H-1B use, told a reporter. “Lot of employers,” he suggested, seek visas despite “a climate with very high unemployment even among skilled workers. Below-market wages are a real concern here.”
Bernstein says he found evidence of employers using H-1Bs to force down wages. In short, American workers know that if their salary demands get too high, they can be replaced by workers from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and many other countries.
In fact, Chileans are assured 1,400 H-1B visas each year under a free trade agreement, while 5,400 visas go each year to citizens of Singapore under another trade pact. None of those count toward the nominal 65,000 annual limit
There is bipartisan concern in Congress over the likelihood that H-1Bs put Americans out of work, led by Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. But their efforts at a fix have gotten nowhere.
That’s partly because high-tech firms spread campaign money around widely and liberally.
But the flaw remains. It is employers who must file initially for H-1Bs, and they are a far cry from hiring only persons with advanced degrees. In fact, a special category of H-1B adds 20,000 visas a year atop the purported 65,000 limit, going to workers with master’s degrees or higher credentials earned at American universities. This effort aims to keep in this country some of the foreign talent that’s regularly trained here.
But relatively few in the basic 65,000 quota possess advanced degrees or credentials. Most are not high-level researchers and software engineers, as high-tech firms often try to bill them. Rather, they may be laboratory technicians or even assembly-line workers.
One big problem singled out by the Brookings study was that some companies which file labor condition applications (LCAs) where they affirm there are shortages of qualified workers include more than one type of worker in each such filing. Some companies are more straightforward, like Microsoft, which files a separate LCA for each H-1B worker.
One of the most remarkable things about the H-1B controversy is that conservative politicians who normally inveigh loudly against illegal immigration say almost nothing about it. Neither President Obama nor his 2012 challenger Mitt Romney ever said anything significant on the subject.
So it remains a lingering sore point for many highly trained, but unemployed American workers. The bottom-line fact is that neither the Departments of Labor nor Homeland Security ever makes sure the workers brought in on these visas are actually needed, rather than merely a convenient, exploitative money-saver for big corporations.