Storm Clouds Rise Over H-1B

Visa proponents hunker down while opposition from labor groups, laid-off workers builds.

Two years ago, IT vendors and other proponents of the controversial H-1B visa program were generating about as much sound and fury as a raging storm on the high seas. Lobbying groups such as TechNet insisted the chronic IT skills shortage would sink the industry unless the annual numbers of H-1B visas—allowing foreign workers to take positions temporarily in the United States—were substantially increased. They won, and the number of H-1B visas available to employers annually was increased to 195,000, triple the number available before 1998.

Fast forward to 2002, and you dont hear a peep from H-1B backers. Even though the number of H-1B visas available annually is scheduled to revert to 65,000 in 2004, TechNet is quiet. The big tech companies have little or no comment on the need to sustain or even increase the cap. One of the sponsors of the 2000 bill increasing the H-1B visa cap, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is unavailable to talk now, according to her assistant. And the brain trust at another industry lobbying group, the Information Technology Association of America, "hasnt spent 10 seconds" thinking about its strategy—"yet," according to its president, Harris Miller.

Meanwhile, as the lingering economic slowdown has hit the IT industry particularly hard, throwing many U.S. native IT professionals out of work, pressure is rapidly mounting to torpedo the H-1B visa program, or at least cut its engines. Labor groups representing IT workers are mobilizing members; immigration-focused politicians are introducing bills to downscale the H-1B program; and laid-off IT workers are threatening employers with legal action, claiming theyve been sacrificed in favor of lower-paid H-1B workers.

So, is the controversial H-1B visa program about to sail into the sunset, another victim of the sour economy? Dont count on it, experts say. Although IT industry lobbyists and other backers of the H-1B program are quiet on the topic now, this may be the calm before the storm. Support for sustaining or even increasing the current number of H-1B visas is almost certain to rise before the 2004 deadline.

Backers of H-1B increases "think the best thing they can do is to shut up about this and look for an opportunity next year to sneak it through," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., in Washington, author of H.R. 3222, the High-Tech Work Fairness and Economic Stimulus Act of 2001, which would return the H-1B quota to 65,000 per year. The bill, under consideration in the House, would also provide for further reductions in the cap if unemployment increases beyond a certain level. (For more on the bill and Tancredos position, see "Anti-H-1B Congressman Plans Strategy").

When now-latent support for the H-1B program resurfaces, plenty of opposition—from Tancredo and others—will be waiting. Much of that opposition is from IT workers, many of whom believe they were discriminated against in favor of H-1B visa holders during the past years miserable climate of layoffs.

"Our membership is angry about the H-1B visa issue," said Marcus Courtney, staff organizer and local president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, a Seattle-based organization of high-tech workers and the local affiliate of the Communications Workers of America. "Theyre starting to have serious doubts about the validity of the program and the premise under which it operates."

As this story was going to press, delegates from WashTech were planning to present a resolution to the annual convention of the CWA in Las Vegas last week. The resolution will call on the CWA to support legislation that strengthens reporting requirements of companies that use H-1B workers and reduces the H-1B visa cap to 65,000. The resolution also challenges the employ of H-1B visa holders by telecommunications companies attempting to break strikes (as allegedly happened at AT&T Corp. this spring when the company brought in hundreds of Indian workers for training as network technicians as part of a strike contingency plan).