Green cards for spouses – that’s the latest quiet Obama Administration move to please and appease the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere who constantly clamor for more H1-B visas to bring in cheap, skilled foreign labor.
The ploy sounds extremely humanitarian, but might really be little more than an end run around the current limit of 85,000 visas granted to immigrants whose skills are allegedly not matched by any talent available in America, including about 20,000 slots for people with advanced degrees earned at American universities.
Without consulting Congress and with little notice other than a routine press release, Obama and his aides may essentially now be doubling that 85,000 number. As of now, spouses of H1-B visa holders being sponsored for a green card by their employers will be allowed to work in this country.
Since the great bulk of H1-Bs who perform adequately and show up regularly for work receive such sponsorship in the interest of maintaining a stable work force, there will now be about 60,000 to 70,000 new foreign workers eligible to take jobs for which some U.S. engineering groups say there are plenty of trained, competent Americans.
No one knows precisely how many H1-B workers are married, but it’s for certain that many who would previously have left their spouses behind in home countries like India and the Philippines will now bring them along.
It’s true, as the administration noted when publishing the new rule in the Federal Register, that not all spouses of imported tech workers will be allowed to work. They become eligible only when employers petition for full immigrant visas for them.
But since many couples in India, Singapore and other countries from which H1-B workers often stem are about equally educated, the change will probably sideline even more American workers whose salaries now average considerably higher than those paid to the imports.
Was it a coincidence that this change came within a week of an autumn Obama excursion to Silicon Valley and other California points, where he pitched for more high-tech development and raked in a few million campaign dollars for last year’s Democratic congressional and Senate candidates? With companies along and just off the Bayshore Freeway corridor between San Jose and Redwood City constantly yammering for more immigrant workers (including the likes of Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Google and Hewlett-Packard), it’s apparent campaign money talks – loudly.
Fully 16 percent of H1-B visas go to California companies and their immigrant workers, many of whom stay in the areas to which they were brought. When visas expire and they can’t legally get high-tech jobs anymore, some become off-the-books motel clerks or freelance computer instructors paid in cash or personal checks.
The H1-B program also often exceeds its formal limits. While only 85,000 permits are supposed to be issued this year, the total of imported workers often exceeds 90,000 and in 2010 came to 117,409. This happens in part through side agreements. Examples: Chileans get 1,400 visas under a trade agreement, while 5,400 go annually to citizens of Singapore, under another pact. These workers don’t count toward the formal limit.
Those are failings, for sure. But the main problem with H1-B 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 H1-B demand with labor demand; they are not the same thing,” Jared Bernstein, author of a Brookings Institution report on H1-B use, told a reporter last year. A lot of employers, he suggested, seek visas even when unemployment is high and extends to skilled workers.
Bernstein said he found some evidence of employers using H1-Bs to force down wages. In short, American workers know that if they demand too much, they can be replaced by foreign labor.
Yes, there is some justification for the category of 20,000 workers with advanced degrees obtained in this country; it keeps persons trained here contributing to the American economy.
But adding spouses to the equation seems to give the companies too much leeway in hiring and setting wages, especially since most H1-Bs are not high-level scientists, but rather work in laboratories or on assembly lines.
The bottom line: The new spousal visa rule is one executive action that deserves far more congressional scrutiny than it has yet gotten.