Indian IT Group Frets over H-1B Reforms

NASSCOM, an Indian IT outsourcing trade group, takes to Capitol Hill to lobby against potential legislation aimed at reforming the H-1B visa process. While high-tech industries favor an expansion of the program that allows highly trained foreign workers to fill existing IT vacancies, recent scandals in the H-1B visa program have raised lawmakers' ire and a call for reform.

Officials from India's National Association of Software and Services Companies, or NASSCOM, an IT outsourcing trade group, worked Capitol Hill this week, lobbying lawmakers and the White House about its "extreme concern" over H-1B visa reform legislation that will soon be introduced in Congress.

"Last year, many changes were being proposed for H-1B use, including how many American employees a company should have, and how many maximum visas an individual company can have," NASSCOM President Som Mittal told the Indian news organization Business Line March 11. "These proposals were put up in the past but not enacted because it is believed that comprehensive reforms are required and not mere tweaking of individual provisions."

Leading the charge for H-1B visa reform in the 2007-2008 110th Congress were Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who pushed for legislation increasing the fees on H-1B visas while not raising the 65,000 visa cap. A Durbin-Grassley bill would have required employers to make a good-faith effort to hire American workers first, and employers would also have to show that the H-1B worker would not displace an American worker.

All of the bills ultimately failed, as lawmakers did not want to split off H-1B reform from a larger immigration bill that was loaded with such explosive political hot buttons such as border security and amnesty. That bill, too, failed to win passage. Grassley is expected to introduce H-1B reform legislation similar to his 2007 efforts by the spring.

"We are working closely with the policy makers in the U.S. Congress and administration to ensure that the Indian IT industry is not disadvantaged in any manner," NASSCOM said in a statement. "We had a healthy discussion with Sen. Charles Grassley from Iowa who is spearheading the H-1B legislation and will be working with him to ensure that while we apprehend and stop any fraudulent use of H-1B visas, legitimate business users are not affected."

Fraudulent H-1B visas are likely to be a hot topic in Congress when it takes up visa reform. In February, federal authorities busted an alleged nationwide H-1B scam ring, arresting 11 people in seven states and bringing a 10-count indictment against a New Jersey IT services company. The indictment charges Vision Systems Group with one count of conspiracy and eight counts of mail fraud and seeks $7.4 million in forfeitures.

According to the Department of Justice, the scheme involved hiring college-educated foreign workers to allegedly fill high-tech jobs in Iowa when, in fact, the workers were sent to the East and West coasts while being paid the lower prevailing Iowa wage rate.

"We [have to] actively raise the need for global collaboration if the world is to come out of this economic downturn quickly. ... Nothing should be done that seems attractive and populist in the short term, but will have a long-term negative impact," the NASSCOM statement added.

NASSCOM said that only 11 percent of H-1B visas were issued to the Indian IT industry last year.

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.