Q: What is an H-1B Visa?
A: An H-1B visa is a temporary, employment-based visa status for skilled foreign guest workers. Administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the H-1B program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for jobs requiring a college degree or equivalent experience. The fast-growth IT industry has a high concentration of guest workers using the program to obtain employment in the United States. In fiscal 2013, sixty percent of H-1B petitions approved were for workers in computer-related occupations.
Originally intended to complement the U.S. labor market by supplying foreign workers for skilled jobs that U.S. employers couldn’t fill with U.S. workers, Congress put an annual limit on the number of foreign workers who are able to secure an H-1B visa. This visa cap was designed to help prevent downward pressure on wages and to protect American workers from being displaced by cheaper foreign labor. The cap under current law is 65,000, not including 20,000 for students and numerous exceptions that in reality bump up the number of H-1B workers admitted each year tens of thousands higher. Last year, the government approved 315,857 H-1B petitions.
Contrary to popular misconception, employers are generally not required to demonstrate that no U.S. workers were available to do the job being offered to the H-1B worker. Nor do employers have to offer the job to an American even if they are equally or better qualified.
Q: Do you support efforts to raise the cap and expand the visa program?
A: Enhancing and expanding avenues for people to enter the country legally deserves support. However, increasing this visa program requires careful scrutiny. With loopholes baked into the program that harm American workers , it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude what would happen if the threshold is raised to 195,000, as has been proposed in some bills. Rampant fraud weakens the integrity of this visa program. A 2008 federal audit of the H-1B program found brazen violations and examples of non-compliance, such as forged documents, workers not being paid promised wages and even ghost business locations and no evidence of business activity as outlined in the H-1B petitions.
As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I led a congressional hearing in March to get the facts out on the table. Testimony from expert witnesses, including legal scholars, an American worker-whistleblower and an IT executive revealed stark differences of opinion on the need to expand the program. Clearly, employers want to run a prosperous business. They want to hire the best talent, but also pay the lowest possible wages to stay profitable.
Considering the systemic cases of fraud and abuse in the H-1B and other skilled worker visa programs, it’s clear that Congress and the federal bureaucracy need to tighten oversight and improve compliance before throwing more American workers out of work and lower-paid foreign guest workers under the bus. Evidence of program abuse shows that large outsourcing companies are exploiting these visa programs at the expense of American workers and muscling out smaller U.S. tech companies from participating at all in the programs. We must first fix what’s broken. A good look reveals plenty of fences to mend before creating new gateways for guest workers that displace skilled American workers and U.S. science and engineering graduates for good-paying jobs. Let’s start by adequately enforcing the nation’s employment and immigration laws before further undermining the opportunities available to American workers.