At a Capitol Hill hearing this week, the Information Technology Association of America released a paper that urges reform of the controversial L-1 visa program.
The ITAA seeks to prevent misuse of L-1 visas, which some IT workers say have cost them their jobs.
“The L-1 program is critically important to U.S. multinational information technology firms as they compete globally,” ITAA President Harris Miller said in a statement released along with the report titled “Proposed Guidance on L-1B Specialized Knowledge.”
“However, as with any complex immigration program, we see some possible areas of improvement in its administration by the Departments of State and Homeland Security to insure that legitimate users have access and to prevent possible abuses,” the statement continued.
The L-1 visa program was created to allow multinational companies to temporarily transfer employees with specialized skills from their foreign subsidiaries, affiliates or parent companies to work on special projects in the United States. But critics of the program claim that a loophole allows IT consultancies with operations overseas to import foreign workers and then contract them out to U.S. companies, which are not required by law to pay L-1 visa holders prevailing U.S. wages. Some laid-off IT workers claim they have even had to train their foreign replacements.
Aiming to prevent such misuse, the ITAA paper seeks to clarify what qualifies as “specialized knowledge” in the IT industry. Knowledge of ubiquitous database management systems, operating systems or software languages such as COBOL, C++, and Java are not examples of specialized knowledge, according to the ITAA. But “advanced knowledge of an employers special process or methodology that is not generally held throughout the industry could be considered specialized knowledge and would be an acceptable case for applying for an L-1 visa,” the ITAA said in a statement.
The ITAA released its paper at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, where lawmakers had gathered to hear testimony from both sides of the L-1 visa debate.
One of the witnesses who testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security was Patricia Fluno, a computer programmer from Orlando, Fla. A former Siemens ICN employee, Fluno claims that she was replaced by a foreign worker when Siemens outsourced her job and others to Tata Consulting Services, of India. Even worse, Fluno said, she was instructed to train her replacement.
“This was the most humiliating experience of my life,” Fluno told lawmakers. “Our visa-holders replacements are sitting at our old desks, answering our old phones, and working on the same systems and programs we did … but for one-third the cost.”
Also speaking before lawmakers Tuesday was Cornell Law School Adjunct Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration expert who claims that alleged abuses of the L-1 visa program have been exaggerated.
But according to the U.S. State Department, the number of L-1 visas issued has steadily increased year-over-year for the last decade—except for the period from 2001 to 2002. The latest statistics indicate that this growth will likely continue in 2003. For the first six months of 2003, 28,098 L-1 visas were issued, compared with 26,304 for the same year-ago period, according to State Department spokesman Charles Oppenheim.
Yale-Loehr said he also was concerned that if Congress enacts too severe restrictions on the issuance of L-1 visas, “multinational firms may conclude that it is too burdensome and unprofitable to do business in this country—a decision that would directly result in the loss of employment for many U.S. workers.”
Several lawmakers have proposed legislation in recent months that would impose new restrictions on the L-1 visa program. Last week, Sen. Chris Dodd, (D-Conn.) and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) introduced mirror versions of The U.S.A. Jobs Protection Act of 2003 in the Senate and House, respectively.
The bill would, among other things, extend the time workers must be employed with companies before transferring to the United States on an L-1 visa, reduce the time L-1 workers can remain in the United States, and require that these workers be paid prevailing wages. Also under the bill, U.S. employers would have to make a documented, “good faith” effort to first fill the position with an American worker. Additionally, the bill would extend the Labor Departments authority to investigate potential violators of the law and to impose sanctions.
Johnson is also co-sponsor of a less restrictive bill introduced in May by Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) that aims to prohibit the outsourcing of L-1 visa holders. Under the bill, companies would only be able to employ L-1 visa holders from their foreign subsidiaries, not from third parties.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) also introduced legislation in June that would, among other things, place an annual cap of 35,000 on L-1 visas and require L-1 workers to be paid prevailing U.S. wages. The bill would also deny L-1s to any company that has laid off an American worker in the six months before or after filing an L-1 application.
(Editors Note: This story has been modified since its orginal posting to correct an error in Yale-Loehrs title.)