Representative photo: AFP
WASHINGTON: A bipartisan, bicameral group of US lawmakers on Friday reintroduced fine-tuned legislation aimed at reforming the skilled guest worker program to prevent the flight of American jobs and outsourcing while giving priority to absorbing US-educated foreign technology professionals.
Introducing what is titled as H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, the lawmakers said the bill would prioritize American workers and restore fairness in visa programs for skilled foreign workers who are educated in the US, while closing loopholes that have been exploited by body-shopping firms and companies specializing in outsourcing work. They said the legislation would restore Congress’ original intent in the H-1B and L-1 visa programs by increasing enforcement, modifying wage requirements and securing protections for both American workers and visa holders.
“Congress created these programs to complement America’s high-skilled workforce, not replace it. Unfortunately, some companies are trying to exploit the programs by cutting American workers for cheaper labor. We need programs dedicated to putting American workers first. When skilled foreign workers are needed to meet the demands of our labor market, we must also ensure that visa applicants who honed their skills at American colleges and universities are a priority over the importation of more foreign workers,” Senator Chuck Grassley, one of the lead sponsors of the legislation said.
Provisions of the bill will require U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to prioritize for the first time the annual allocation of the 85,000 H-1B visas that are currently issued. The new system would ensure that the best and brightest students being educated in the United States receive preference for an H-1B visa, including advanced degree holders, those being paid a high wage, and those with valuable skills.
Under the current system, only 20,000 H1B visas are allotted to foreign students graduating from U.S universities, with the rest 65,000 going to foreign guest workers who are either recruited directly or come to the U.S for onsite projects. Lawmakers and pressure groups claim the system has long been manipulated by companies that send poorly qualified foreign workers to the U.S who are frequently trained by their American counterparts, who often end up getting replaced by them. Sometimes, the companies importing the workers take the project back abroad to do it at a lower cost.
Administration and industry estimates around 65 per cent of H1B visas, which were introduced in 1990 to address a shortage of skilled professionals in U.S., goes to Indians, many of whom eventually become permanent residents and citizens. While this Indian cohort built up over decades, is recognized as the highest-educated and wealthiest of all ethnic groups in the U.S. including white Americans, anti-immigration activists say there has been increasing abuse of the system over the years by companies hiring foreign workers at a lower cost, resulting in the displacement of Americans and denying jobs to native-born Americans.
“For years, outsourcing companies have used loopholes in the laws to displace qualified American workers and facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs. Our legislation would end these abuses and protect American and foreign workers from exploitation,” said Richard Durbin, a Democrat who along with Grassley has worked for years to bring the legislation, first introduced several years ago, to fruition.
Their efforts have been thwarted several times by industry groups and lobbyists who have argued that it is important for American companies to be able to tap into a global talent pool and a mobile workforce offered by outsourcing companies and that such a system allows efficiency and productivity, eventually benefiting American consumers. While some acknowledge there have been sporadic instances of abuse, they also argue that the U.S does not produce a sufficient number of qualified skilled professionals to meet the country’s needs. In fact, this is most apparent during the pandemic where immigrant doctors, nurses, health care workers, scientists, and researchers form between 25 to 30 per cent of the specialised workforce.
But those who have been pressing for reform, which some groups consider a trade barrier in that it prevents movement of high skilled talent and services, have been galvanized by the massive job loss and unemployment due to the pandemic, although immigration advocates say the moment also calls for allowing immigrants with specific skills. Nativist, anti-immigrant groups have also piled on to lawmakers to urge that U.S-born Americans should get first dibs on jobs, although lawmakers have expanded the pool to include U.S-educated foreign graduates. In fact, nativist groups have been lobbying the White House to even end the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that allows graduating students three years of paid internship in the U.S in case of STEM graduates.
Other legislators want the bill to primarily fix abuse of the system by body-shoppers and outsourcers while absorbing these students and highly skilled professionals with good pay. “American immigrants come to this country with some of the most innovative, transformative ideas this world has ever seen. Immigrants coming here on H-1B visas have made important contributions to Silicon Valley’s leadership in the digital revolution. We want to make sure that talent is coming to the US, but we also want to make sure that it’s being done with proper compensation,” said Ro Khanna, the Indian-American Congressman from Silicon Valley who is supporting the legislation.