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   April 2013


Green Cards, Not H-1B Visas, are Better for High-Skill Workers, U.S. Economy

By Chris McManes

Comprehensive immigration reform is a hot topic on Capitol Hill and around the country. While the focus is on amnesty and border security, the high-skill component most interests IEEE-USA.

Volunteers, staff and representatives of the Washington, D.C.-based organization have been visiting the Capitol nearly as much as school children on spring break. IEEE-USA’s goal is to convince Congress not to expand a badly flawed H-1B temporary visa program, but rather increase the number of employment-based (EB) green cards for high-tech workers.

“We at IEEE-USA very much believe the emphasis should be on green cards,” testified IEEE-USA consultant Bruce Morrison on 5 March before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.

Morrison, testifying during the hearing, “Enhancing American Competitiveness through Skilled Immigration,” chaired the subcommittee when the Immigration Act of 1990 became law and created the H-1B program.

(You can view the hearing at http://judiciary.edgeboss.net/wmedia/judiciary/
immigration/imm_03052013.wvx. It begins at about the 20:30 mark. For Morrison’s written testimony, see http://www.ieeeusa.org/policy/policy/

The H-1B non-immigrant visa category provides skilled foreign workers such as scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians — as well as teachers, lifeguards, hospital workers and fashion models, among others the opportunity to work in the United States for up to six years.

Morrison, a former Democratic representative from Connecticut who holds two degrees in chemistry, is regarded as one of the nation’s foremost experts on high-skill immigration. He and his colleagues did not foresee the H-1B program being used to hurt American citizens.

H-1B workers’ visas are held by the company, thus making it extremely difficult for these individuals to leave for a better job. Plus, they cannot start their own companies. Green cards holders, by contrast, hold their own visas, are free agents in the market place and can create their own companies. Successful businesses employ Americans in the United States.

“We represent the people who are the innovative workers in this sector,” Morrison said. “We represent people who are born in America and people who are foreign-born and who have become Americans. So we are very much sensitive to the challenges that American workers face, but also the opportunities that America has in terms of accepting skilled immigrants” … “to join our workforce.”

Salary Suppression

H-1B employees working in engineering and IT-related fields are often paid salaries well below prevailing wages for their occupation and region of the country. This reduces job opportunities for Americans who cannot support themselves and their families on below-market wages.

According to IEEE-USA Senior Legislative Representative Russ Harrison, it also places H-1B workers in a dangerously dependent situation.

“Because the visa belongs to their boss, employees can’t stay in this country unless their boss lets them. And this permission can be revoked at any time,” Harrison said. “Employers can withdraw an H-1B visa from any employee whenever they want, and there’s no appeal or recourse for the employee.  This power, even if never exercised, can be used to suppress wages, curtail benefits or win any number of other concessions from employees. American workers have the option of accepting this or being unemployed.  

“The really said thing is that it’s almost always legal for companies to hire H-1B workers instead of Americans.”

Another way H-1B employees’ wages — and by extension American salaries — are tamped down is in how they are categorized by employers.

“The GAO found H-1B employers characterize or categorize over half of their H-1B workers as entry level, which is defined as performing routine tasks that require limited, if any, exercise in judgment,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, said in his opening remarks at the 5 March hearing.

“And only 6 percent is fully competent.”

Gowdy said the prevailing wage for an H-1B worker employed as an entry-level electrical engineer in his home district of Greenville, S.C., is $55,890. For a “fully competent” EE on an H-1B, it’s $88,920.

“Are experienced Americans losing out?” Gowdy asked.

H-1B Visas Promote Outsourcing of U.S. Jobs

Americans definitely lose out when their once high-paying, benefit-laden jobs are sent to lower labor-cost nations. While industry tells us that a larger supply of H-1B visas contributes to the health of the U.S. economy, statistics do not bear that out.

Computerworld magazine found that the top 10 users of H-1B visas in FY 2012 — and 15 of the top 20 — were companies who specialize in replacing American workers in the United States, as well as outsourcing American jobs offshore.

In “The data shows: Top H-1B users are offshore outsourcers,” Computerworld found that, “Based on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data analyzed, the major beneficiaries of the proposed increase in the [H-1B] cap would be pure offshore outsourcing firms.”

“Congress should pass laws that create U.S. jobs, not destroy them,” IEEE-USA President Marc Apter said in a 29 March IEEE-USA news release.

Data published by the Department of Labor in March showed that — once again — the top 10 companies applying for H-1B visas in the first three months of FY 2013 continued to be offshore outsourcers.

These 10 organizations collectively had 112,739 positions — representing 73.4 percent more than the base annual H-1B cap of 65,000 — certified to be filled by an H-1B worker. In addition, 64.1 percent of the 175,806 certified H-1B applications from just 1 October to 31 December 2012 went to these 10 companies.

Harrison added that another of IEEE-USA’s legislative goals is “to kick the outsourcers out of the H-1B visa program.”

Green Cards are the Way Forward

Including unlimited exemptions to the H-1B cap, the United States issued 134,780 H-1B visas in FY 2012. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation being debated in Congress could significantly boost that number. Those on an H-1B hoping for a green card, which confers permanent resident status, often have to wait up to 10 years to attain one.

“Our current green card system is hopelessly backlogged,” Morrison said. “We need more green cards both to address the backlog and to address the future demand.”

About 120,000 EB green cards are handed out each year, but less than half go to the skilled workers themselves. Spouses and dependent children use the rest. The immigration reform bill would increase the number of green cards, but not by as much as IEEE-USA would like.

“What green cards do is give those who are foreign-born an equal right and autonomy in the economy to have full freedom, to have their market power, to leave their job and not to be required to be in any way beholden to a particular employer,” Morrison said. “That works for both the American worker and the foreign worker.

“That is the way to have a level playing field.”


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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