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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.

"They're not using the H1-B for the best and brightest," he says. In fact, the GAO report found that less than 1% of employers garnered one-quarter of the H1-B approvals over the past decade. The program doesn't limit the number of H1-B visa workers that any one company can hire, Hira notes. (Neither Infosys or Wipro responded to a request for comment.)

A 2007 report by the Center for Immigration Studies shows a significant difference between the wages paid to H1-B visa holders and their domestic counterparts. "H-1B wages averaged $12,000 below the median U.S. wage based on occupation and location," according to the report, "Low Salaries for Low Skills Wages and Skill Levels for H-1B Computer Workers."

The report also states that "employers who used the Department of Labor's skill-based prevailing wage system classified most workers (56%) as being at the lowest skill level (Level I) as did most State Employment Security Agency (SESA) wage determinations (57%). This suggests that most H-1B computer workers are low-skilled workers who make no special contribution to the American economy, or that employers are deliberately understating workers' skills in order to justify paying them lower salaries."

To be sure, a number of companies eschew these practices. "That's a different business model and bears no resemblance to our companies' models," says the SIA's Wilson. "We don't want employees who are highly valued to be thought of as a fly-by-night labor model."

Some Proposals, and Some Hope

Several changes to the H1-B visa program are critical, experts say. One is increasing the wage floor, "so companies don't use guest workers for cheaper labor," says Professor Hira. He also would cap the percentage of any company's H1-B holders at 15 percent of its U.S. workforce.

The SIA's Wilson recommends that every qualified graduate student in a U.S. STEM program (science, technology, engineering and math), who has a bona fide job offer, be permitted to apply for a green card on an expedited basis. "You don't want to give a master's degree in engineering to a brilliant young engineer, then ship them home to a competitor," he says.

In what some see as an encouraging sign, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2011, H.R. 3012, was introduced in September and passed in November. The bill, sponsored by Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), would eliminate the per-country limit on employment-based immigrants. That should allow employees from countries like India and China to more quickly move through the application process to receive green cards, Irisari says.

Streamlining employment-based immigration has become increasingly critical. In the past, highly skilled, foreign-born workers were more willing to wade through the voluminous red tape of the U.S. immigration process. Today, they can choose from a growing number of attractive labor markets. "We're competing worldwide," for talent, Irisari says. "We never want not to have the best and brightest in the U.S."


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