Abuse of skilled-worker visas

The technology industry wants more guest-worker visas. The program needs cleaning up first.

Immigration reform skidded off the road in Congress this year, but that hasn't stopped interest groups from restarting their engines. The technology industry, for instance, is revving up for more skilled guest-worker visas. That idea, sensible as it may sound, should sputter and quit – at least for now.

It's hard to say "no" when America's tech sector moans it has no future without more temporary, professional, foreign workers.

There's no denying the argument that skilled and educated legal immigrants contribute greatly to the US economy. An August study by Duke, Harvard, and New York universities shows just how much: Last year, a quarter of the inventors or co-inventors named on international patent applications in the US were foreign nationals living in America.

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Meanwhile, the number of students seeking US computer-science bachelor's degrees plummeted by 40 percent from 2001 to 2006 (a key reason was fear of job loss, in part to outsourcing).

And so the pressure is on to increase the annual number of professional guest-worker visas, known as the H-1B. At present, 65,000 are allowed each year, with an extra 20,000 reserved for foreign nationals who have a graduate degree from a US institution. The Senate immigration reform bill that failed earlier this year would have increased the cap to 115,000 in 2008, with 20 percent increases after that. Bill Gates says there should be no cap at all.

But more H-1Bs are not the way to meet America's knowledge-worker challenge, certainly not until the program is overhauled.

Guest-worker programs are liable to abuse. They allow businesses – whether growers of potato chips or designers of computer chips – to import captive, cheap labor. Temporary programs have a way of becoming permanent. They relieve employers of innovating and hiring able American workers first – even if that means paying higher wages.

All of these problems afflict the H-1B and its sister visa, the L-1, which allows for temporary transfer of employees from company locations abroad, and has no caps.

The H-1B program, created to fill short-term gaps in skilled labor, has morphed into long-term dependency on a total of 500,000 to 700,000 visa holders. Many hold entry-level, low-salary jobs.

Only a tiny fraction of employers seeking H-1Bs must first seek US workers, and none must demonstrate a labor shortage. The visas are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis – not according to need. The one safeguard, that H-1Bs are paid the "prevailing wage," is not enforced.

Ron Hira, of the Rochester Institute of Technology, reports that half of the 52,352 H-1B computer professionals admitted in 2005 earned less than entry-level salaries. The Center for Immigration Studies finds that 56 percent of the hires for computing jobs that year were brought in at the lowest skill level. What employer can resist?

A Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois and Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa aims to close these loopholes and add real oversight. It deserves support.

But even with reforms, demand for more temporary visas should meet with skepticism. The better effort would be to adjust salaries, which have been flat or falling, and encourage science and math studies, so that Americans can again restock the pipeline.

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