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The curse of the H1-B visa program

Karen M. Kroll | Dec. 30, 2011
The H1-B visa program, like most elements of America's immigration policy, generates plenty of criticism.

Moreover, currently workers that the program brings into the U.S. can find themselves in truly precarious situations, since the employer holds the visa. "That gives the employer a lot of power over the worker," Hira says. If the company terminates an H1-B employee, he or she is "out of status" with immigration authorities; that is, the employee has violated the terms of his or her lawful status.Another tenet of conventional wisdom -- that the H1-B visa is an initial step toward citizenship -- also doesn't hold up, says Jim Jefferies, vice president for government relations with IEEE-USA, the U.S. division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "They (the employees) can start a parallel path to citizenship, but the H1-B doesn't move them to the path."

In fact, the H1-B visa can actually complicate employees' ability to work while also gaining residency. Here's how: Employees on H1-B visas who accept a new position or promotion, even with the same employer, effectively move their application for a permanent-resident green card to the end of the line. "Employees have turned down promotions so they don't have to give up their place in line," says Gene Irisari, director of government affairs with Texas Instruments.

Hi Per-Employee Cost

Even employers who are concerned about the welfare of their employees on H1-B visas can find the requirements onerous. Logistics Management Solutions LC, a third-party logistics provider based in St. Louis, used the H1-B program as it expanded its operations to Mexico, says LMS chief financial officer Scott Hunt. Management's goal was to bring in an employee who could speak Spanish, and also was an expert in the Mexican highway system and carrier industry.

But, says Hunt: "The process is very cumbersome from a documentation and legal cost perspective. We didn't feel that you could just go on your own, download the forms and fill them out." LMS engaged outside counsel to assist in their efforts. Between time spent on the process and outside fees, obtaining the visa ran the company between $15,000 and $20,000, Hunt estimates.

Moreover, the company didn't have the ability to determine what it was going to pay the new employee, Hunt says. Instead, the Missouri Department of Labor determined the employee's salary. While LMS wasn't trying to offer a cut-rate salary -- indeed, it was willing to pay for the skills its needed -- the fact that the company didn't know what it would be paying made budgeting difficult.

The Wage Differential

Perhaps most disturbing about the H1-B program: its apparent use by some companies to bring in large numbers of relatively low-skilled workers, rather than those possessing specific expertise, and pay them below-market wages. For instance, Infosys, the IT consulting firm, was approved for 10,000 H1-B visas between 2007 and 2009, Prof. Hira said in his testimony. Wipro, another consulting firm, hired more than 7,000 H1-B workers over the same period.


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