The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently issued a policy memo that the title computer programmer is no longer a specialty occupation, making it harder for companies to fill computer programmer jobs with H-1B worker visas, according to The Hill.
Days later, the agency announced it would start conducting targeted site visits to companies with a large portion of high-skilled worker visas to review for H-1B program abuses.
“The H-1B visa program should help U.S. companies recruit highly-skilled foreign nationals when there is a shortage of qualified workers in the country,” the agency said. “Yet, too many American workers who are as qualified, willing and deserving to work in these fields have been ignored or unfairly disadvantaged.”
Is there a Shortage of Skilled American Workers?
The Department of Justice also released a statement that it would prosecute abuses, that it “will not tolerate employers misusing the H-1B visa process to discriminate against U.S. workers.”
According to the Washington Post, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he would consider eliminating H-1B visas — which is a lottery-based system — while campaigning for President Donald Trump.
However, 2015 open job postings related to science, technology, engineering and math fields outnumbered unemployed workers in these fields by a factor of almost 17 to 1, according to a study by the New American Economy. Other economists that spoke with the Washington Post refute claims that there is a shortage of skilled American workers, or that a shortage of skilled workers is only apparent in some markets.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is chairman of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, is actually seeking to increase the number of H-1B visas by between 115,000 to 195,000 a year through his bill the Immigration Innovation Act originally introduced in 2015.
Are Tech Companies Exploiting Foreign Workers for Cheap Labor?
Tech companies have relied on foreign workers from India — 71 percent of 2015 H-1B visa recipients came from there — some 195,000 visa holders. The companies using workers hired by multinational outsourcing firms are exempt from Federal rules about displacing U.S. workers because the visa holders are paid below market rates, which means the tech companies that hire tech workers through the visa program have reduced labor costs.
When those with the 3-year worker visas apply for green cards, they can renew indefinitely. But Aman Kapoor, president of Immigration Voice, said the wait times result in foreign workers being put in a position of indentured servitude. There is little incentive for companies to give them pay raises while waiting for employment-dependent green card applications to process.
“An immigrant worker has few rights and is now stuck with the employer for many years,” Kapoor said, while acknowledging that the ability to exploit foreign workers for lower wages disenfranchises American workers.
Kapoor came to the United States in 1997 under the visa program and it took him 12 years to get his green card.
Some advocates of H-1B visa reform seek to replace the lottery, and instead take into account a visa applicant’s salary and skill.
Hatch wrote an opinion piece for the San Jose Mercury News where he pledged to be a bridge between the President and Silicon Valley tech companies hiring foreign-born with worker visas.
What About Low Wage Workers Visas?
The recent crackdown on workers visas did not focus on low wage worker visas, like the H-2A visa program that requires farmers prove they have advertised locally for U.S. workers first before seeking foreign employees.
According to a separate recent story in the Washington Post, visa programs that enable vineyards and resorts like Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach, Fla., to hire foreign workers are not presently under Federal scrutiny.
Farmers must go through several steps to get certified for H-2A visas before they are issued, and must provide transportation, meals and housing for jobs that pay between $10 and $13 per hour.
The Grace Estate Winery in Crozet, Va., which employs five H-2A visa workers — four of whom have come from Mexico every year for the past five years to help with the harvest — has not had an American applicant in two to three years, said Linda Clark, the winery’s general manager.
“I want the public to know these workers are not taking Americans’ jobs,” said Clark.
H-2A visas provide about 10 percent of the nation’s farm workforce, according to the American Farm Bureau. About 80 percent of farm laborers are foreign-born, and about half are undocumented workers, which Trump has pledged to deport and place behind a southern border wall.
Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research for the Economic Policy Institute, told the Washington Post Trump may deregulate low wage worker visa programs.
In our minds, the best [border] wall is a functional guest worker program,” said Kerry Scott, program manager for Mid Atlantic Solutions, the nation’s largest private provider of H2 workers.