“We’re feeling pretty good about reform” of the H-1B program, says Russell Harrison, director of government relations for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers–USA, the organization that represents American engineers.
Harrison looks forward to wholesale change of the H-1B visa program, which a large number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workers in the United States believe is driving down their salaries. H-1B workers from foreign countries (largely India) can stay in the U.S. for three years and can get extensions to six years. They are touted as the “best and the brightest” young engineers, whose pay is theoretically not allowed to undercut pay of American workers in the same field.
The U.S. permits 65,000 H-1Bs to enter each year, along with an additional 20,000 who have master’s degrees. Corporations lobby politicians to allow a larger number in, claiming there is a shortage of domestic engineers. Critics say it’s all a lie. The H-1Bs aren’t the best and brightest — they are mediocre engineers. Their pay is significantly lower than that of comparable American-trained engineers — a defiance of the law, say opponents. American corporations recruit H-1Bs so they can jettison higher-paid American engineers, puff up their earnings, and justify higher salaries for top management that already enjoys obscenely high pay, say critics.
Generally, the H-1Bs are young, and thus the entire program generates “rampant age discrimination,” says Norm Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California Davis.
Public opinion began to turn against the H-1B program when Disney and Southern California Edison axed older workers last year and then forced them to train their H-1B replacements, who were being paid far less. Then, when the University of California San Francisco pulled the same stunt, the public really got aroused. TV’s 60 Minutes on March 19 publicized companies’ dirty pool.
During the political campaign, Donald Trump waffled on the topic, but once he was elected, he promised H-1B reform. Bills quickly went into the hopper. Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin reintroduced an H-1B reform bill they first proposed ten years ago. It would eliminate a lottery system used to choose who gets the visas and replace it with a so-called preference system giving foreigners educated in the U.S. a leg up on others. It would also give the Department of Labor enhanced authority to investigate possible abuses.
San Diego County congressmen Darrell Issa and Scott Peters introduced legislation that would raise the H-1B salary requirement to $100,000 from the current $60,000. Supposedly, this would inhibit companies from bringing in H-1Bs at low salaries. Others involved in the anti–H-1B fight, such as Harrison, say the Issa-Peters bill is not tough enough. Representative Zoe Lofgren, who serves Silicon Valley, says the Issa-Peters bill is “a fig leaf.” Her bill would boost the minimum wage for H-1Bs to $130,000.
A bill introduced by Representatives Bill Pascrell Jr., Dave Brat, Ro Khanna, and Paul Gosar, picking up on the Grassley-Durbin initiatives, would require employers to make a good-faith effort to hire American workers before reaching for H-1Bs and prohibit employers from hiring H-1Bs if 50 percent of their employees are already H-1B or L-1 (a similar program) visa holders.
“A number of bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate,” says Harrison. “The American public gets it. The H-1B companies can’t pretend that outsourcing is not a problem. Senator Orrin Hatch [a longtime friend of big business] is the only senator I have heard recently say something nice about H-1B. Last year he was going to introduce a bill that he said would raise the number of H-1B visas. Nobody would sign on with him, and he didn’t want to do it alone. Now he says we have to do something about outsourcing — that’s a monumental shift.”
Some time ago, the anti-H-1B people zeroed in on then–Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as a lead spokesman. Sessions has opposed H-1B for a long time and vehemently spoke against it in the Senate. Now Sessions is attorney general. Many believe he convinced Trump to come out strongly against H-1B.
Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Howard University, researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, and coauthor of the book Outsourcing America, is a longtime foe of H-1B who is pessimistic about possible reform efforts. “A senior Democratic staffer two weeks ago on Durbin’s staff wrote a letter asking Trump to do more. Most say that the longer it goes, the less likely anything will happen,” says Hira.
He thinks the White House doesn’t have time for the H-1B issue or is suffering from internal infighting. “There is a good chance that those who make a lot of money from H-1B” will influence Trump, says Hira. “If Trump does not make this a priority, Congress will sit on its hands. This is not good news.”
Republicans Ted Cruz and Grassley, Democrats Durbin and Sherrod Brown, and independent Bernie Sanders are battling for H-1B reform. “But a lot of Republicans and Democrats benefit from the largesse coming from corporations” that love the H-1B program.
“The Darrell Issa [and Scott Peters] bill is a fake bill. It’s not going to do anything useful,” says Hira. If it passes, Congress “would declare victory, say, ‘Yes, we have reformed everything.’ Then they would take the issue off the table; that is the danger of the Issa bill.”
But Issa and his staff believe the bill could pass and stronger ones wouldn’t. An Issa spokesman told CNNMoney that the bill is “a good entry point for reform. The point of the bill is to be a modest reform on the pieces of H-1B reform that we think have the most buy-in and that we think are most achievable early in the Congress.”
What about President Trump? He is so busy with other matters, such as FBI investigations into campaign activities, rebellion in his own party, and bombing Syria, that he is not focused on H-1B. “He has been tweeting like crazy,” scoffs Hira, “but he has not tweeted on H-1B.”