America’s Corrupted H-1B Visa Program Is Killing American Jobs

There was a time when I was a big proponent of the H-1B visa program, which is a temporary non-immigrant employment visa for highly educated foreign professionals in “specialty occupations” that require at least a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. The visa lasts for three years with the option to renew for an additional three years for a total of six years. H-1B visa holders can be sponsored for permanent visas by their employers.

This visa program, when initially created, helped American companies fill highly valued tech jobs and jobs requiring other unique skills that were needed to spur growth and innovation. But it has been hijacked by companies that are corrupting the program to replace American workers with foreign workers who will accept much lower wages.

As a result, when the annual cap of 65,000 H-1B visas are listed, along with 20,000 additional visas for foreign professionals who graduate with a Master’s or Doctorate from a U.S. university, they are snapped up as soon as they are listed.

It would be gratifying if these were being used entirely by gifted foreign workers who really could contribute to U.S. companies that can’t find trained American workers.

Instead, news reports indicate that most of these visas are being purloined by staffing companies that import cheaper, lower-level workers to replace more expensive U.S. employees.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than 80 percent of H-1B visa holders are approved to be hired at wages below those paid to American-born workers for comparable positions.

This has been particularly devastating to the tech industry, where the lower-wage foreign workers have held down wages for many American tech workers.

Josh Harkinson, writing for Mother Jones, related an instance where pharmaceutical giant Pfizer told hundreds of tech workers at its Connecticut research and development facilities that they would be laid off. However, before getting their final paychecks they’d need to train their replacements — guest workers from India who had come to the United States on H-1B visas.

The purpose of the H-1B visa was to identify workers who could be employed where no qualified workers were available, not to replace qualified American workers already on the job.

“The top 10 users of H-1B visas [in 2012] were all offshore outsourcing firms such as Tata and Infosys. Together these firms hired nearly half of all H-1B workers, and less than 3 percent of them applied to become permanent residents,” Harkinson noted, citing data from Computerworld.

So America trained these workers, only to have them return to their original country, turning them from U.S. workers to competitors, taking with them their training and knowledge.

It has been reported that India’s former commerce secretary once dubbed the H-1B the “outsourcing visa.”

The H-1B visa program was originally cheered by many people duped into the belief that America was not producing enough students with majors in science, technology, engineering and math (the “STEM” professions). But as far back as 2007, the Urban Institute concluded that America was producing plenty of these students; many more than was necessary to fill entry-level jobs.

Perhaps most insidious is that young people considering a technology career steer clear of the tech industry because they see that the industry prefers cheaper foreign guest workers and that the government uses immigration policy to work against technology professionals.

I’m not suggesting that foreign workers can’t play a role in the American market, but we must ensure that when we grant H-1B visas they are being used legitimately and we aren’t punishing American workers with the same skills.

The H-1B visa should be used as the last resort when American companies need workers — not as an excuse to hold down wages or hiring them in the first place.

America has always been a melting pot for immigrants, but we can’t allow American jobs to melt away.

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