In Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), President Barack Obama’s new nominee to run the Department of Commerce, the tech industry has found their man when it comes to expanding the H1-B visa program. The 61-year-old senator is an unabashed fan of the program.
A favorite of American technology companies, the H-1B program is a temporary work visa program allowing American companies and universities to employ foreign guest workers who have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree in a job category that is considered by the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services to be a “specialty occupation.” The idea is to help companies hire foreign guest workers on a temporary basis when there is not a sufficient qualified American work force to meet those needs.
Gregg co-sponsored the H-1B Visa Program Modernization Act of 2007, which would have increased the current H1-B visa cap of 65,000 to 150,000. The unsuccessful effort would have also authorized a 20 percent increase of that 150,000 cap in any fiscal year succeeding a year in which the cap was met.
“One of the main concerns I hear from businesses in New Hampshire and across the nation is a need for more highly skilled workers and that current law is stymieing their ability to hire the workers they desperately need,” Judd said when introducing the legislation. “In today’s competitive global markets, the U.S. must be looking for ways to stay ahead and these bills offer effective, common sense ways to do just that.”
Gregg also voted against a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to ensure that employers make efforts to recruit American workers before hiring foreign workers in addition to opposing legislation by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would raise the fees from $1,500 to $10,000 for employers who wish to import H1-B high-skill non-immigrant workers. The increased funds would be dedicated to scholarships for American high tech students.
“Helping the high tech industry tap into highly skilled talent from around the world and address well-documented labor shortages not only keeps our economy strong, but creates U.S. jobs and deters employers from sending work elsewhere,” Judd said.
Gregg’s unabashed support of expanding the number of the H1-B workers in the United States, though, hardly means an increase in the current cap is in the offing from the 111th Congress. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a frequent critic of the tech industry’s use of the H1-B visa system, has already staked out ground opposing the expanded use of H1-B visas.
Obligation to Protect American Workers
After Microsoft announced it was laying off some 5,000 workers, Grassley promptly fired off a letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wanting to know if the company will be retaining H1-B workers rather than similarly qualified American employees.
“My point is that during a layoff, companies should not be retaining H1-B or other work visa program employees over qualified American workers,” Grassley wrote in a Jan. 22 letter to Microsoft. “Our immigration policy is not intended to harm the American work force. I encourage Microsoft to ensure that Americans are given priority in job retention. Microsoft has a moral obligation to protect these American workers by putting them first during these difficult economic times.”
In October, a report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services found that the H1-B program has more than a 20 percent violation rate. The fraud identified in the report included jobs not located where employers claimed, H1-B visa holders not being paid the prevailing wage, forged documents, fraudulent degrees and “shell businesses.” Nevertheless, the tech industry, led by Microsoft, continues to seek an increase in the H1-B cap.
Even before the report was issued, Grassley, Durbin and Sanders were seeking reform of the H1-B visa program. A bill introduced by Grassley and Durbin would require employers to make a good faith effort to hire American workers first. Employers would also have to show that the H1-B worker would not displace an American worker.
The bill would require employers to advertise job openings on a Department of Labor Web site before submitting an H1-B application. In addition, the bill would give the Department of Labor a mandate to conduct random audits of any company that uses the H1-B program and would require annual audits of companies with more than 100 employees that have 15 percent or more of those workers on H1-B visas.
“This is about protecting the American worker,” Grassley said in a statement accompanying the bill. “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. A little sunshine will go a long way to help the American worker.”