H1-B Visas: One And Done
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One day after the opening of the H1-B visa program process, the 2008 allotment of 85,000 H1-B visas is already gone. Last year it took a month.
Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said the agency received more than 150,000 applications for the program, which allows U.S. companies to sponsor foreign scientists, engineers and programmers for up to six years of U.S. employment. Bentley said there are now approximately 400,000 H1-B visa workers in the United States.
The increasingly controversial visas are highly favored by the technology industry to fill what it claims is a chronic shortfall in American tech talent. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has repeatedly urged Congress to do away with H1-B caps entirely. Critics, though, contend companies use the program to hire talent at below-market rates to replace U.S. workers.
"Because of arbitrary visa caps, we are now in the position of graduating thousands of the world's top innovators, engineers and scientists and telling them they cannot work in the United States," said Robert Hoffman, vice president for government and public affairs at Oracle and co-chair of Compete America, a coalition, which also includes Microsoft and Intel, pushing for H1-B visa reform.
Hoffman said the European Union makes it significantly easier for companies to hire foreign-born talent. "They are laying out the red carpet for high tech. The competition for talent is global." Compete America wants Congress to increase the H1-B visa cap to 115,000.
U.S. Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) are two lawmakers unconvinced by tech's arguments for raising the H1-B cap. The two introduced legislation earlier this week that would overhaul the entire program to give priority to American workers and crack down on employers who misuse H1-B visas.
The legislation would require all employers seeking to hire an H1-B worker to certify they have made a good faith effort to hire American workers first and that the H1-B visa holder would displace an American worker. Under the bill, employers must first advertise the job opening for 30 days on a Department of Labor Web site before applying for H1-B workers.
Grassley and Durbin also want to mandate U.S. employers pay H1-B visa workers prevailing U.S. wages. In addition, the bill would authorize and fund Department of Labor audits of any company using the H1-B program.
"Our immigration policy should seek to complement our U.S. workforce, not replace it," Durbin said in a joint statement with Grassley. "Some employers have abused the H-1B [program] to bypass qualified American job applicants. This bill will set up safeguards for American workers, and provide much-needed oversight and enforcement of employers who fail to abide by the law."
Oracle's Hoffman said the senators' bill is based on the false premise that highly skilled, foreign-born college graduates are competing with U.S. workers. He noted the unemployment rate for U.S. math and science jobs is 2 percent. According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for engineering jobs is 1.7 percent.
"The difference here is in perspective," Hoffman said, "They want to make it harder for the U.S. to recruit workers. They want to make it an either/or situation."
Hoffman said existing laws are in place to protect American workers and an increase in the number of H1-B workers would increase funding to enforce the law. The current H1-B fee for a sponsoring company is $1,500, with $500 of the fee dedicated to fraud prevention and detection. The other $1,000 is used for U.S. job training and scholarships or grants for mathematics, engineering or science programs administered by the National Science Foundation.
Hoffman also insisted Oracle and other members of Compete America are paying "prevailing [U.S.] wages or what we offer, whichever is higher."
He also voiced concerns that the Grassley-Durbin bill would raise the "burden bar" for U.S. companies to participate in the H1-B visa program. "We are certainly open to ways to better enforce the program," Hoffman said. "[The bill] would make it too burdensome for employers."
Grassley, though, said the legislation is all about protecting American workers.
"We're closing loopholes that employers have exploited by requiring them to be more transparent about their hiring, and we're ensuring more oversight of these visa programs to reduce fraud and abuse," he said. "A little sunshine will go a long way to help the American worker."