The US H1-B visa program, which will begin accepting applications for 2013 next week, is a hot-button issue in high-tech. Proponents of the program, which allows highly skilled foreign employees to work in the US, complements the US workforce. Opponents say the program has been exploited to bring in workers that are paid less than their US counterparts and displaces qualified American workers.
Last March, Associate Professor Ronil Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology, testified before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. These are excerpts from his testimony:
- I have concluded that the H-1B program, as currently designed and administered, does more harm than good. To meet the needs of the U.S. economy and U.S. workers, the H-1B visa program needs immediate and substantial overhaul. The principal goal of the H-1B visa program is to bring in foreign workers who complement the US workforce. Instead, loopholes in the program have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in America. They are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to US workers. Furthermore, program loopholes provide an unfair competitive advantage to companies specializing in offshore outsourcing, speeding up the process of shipping high-wage, high-tech jobs overseas. It has disadvantaged companies that primarily hire American workers and forced those firms to accelerate their own offshoring, threatening America’s capacity to innovate and ability to create sufficient high-wage, high-technology jobs.
Hira outlined four design flaws with the program, which I have summarized below:
- No labor market test. Employers are not required to show that American workers are unavailable before hiring foreign workers through the H1-B visa program.
- Wage requirements are too low. A recent GAO study found that the majority of H1-B applications were reserved for entry-level positions — “hardly a wage level that the 'best and brightest' would earn.”
- Work permits are held by the employer. An H1-B worker's legal status in the country is dependent on the employer, rather than the worker, giving inordinate power to the employer.
- The visa period is too long. H1-B visas are issued for three years and are renewable for another three years. The visas can be extended indefinitely.
Hira also testified that other visa programs, such as L-1, B-1, and OPT, are also badly in need of an overhaul. Actions recommended include requiring a regular test of the US labor market; paying guest workers true market wages; limiting the visas to three years with no renewal; eliminating access to additional H1-B visas for H1-B dependent firms; and instituting sensible oversight, including regular audits, of guest worker visa programs.
“The lobbyists supporting the H1-B visa program have repeatedly made claims that the program is needed because there is a shortage of American workers with the requisite skills and that the foreign workers being imported are the best and the brightest,” Hira concluded. “If that is indeed the case, then those employers should not object to these sensible reforms.”