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   FEBRUARY 2013


Senate Proposes Massive H-1B Increase

By Russ Harrison

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate on 29 January includes the largest increase ever to the H-1B program.  The bill, S. 169, would more than triple the size of the H-1B program, while making nominal increases to the EB green card program.  If passed, the bill would be a boon to outsourcing companies while costing American workers tens of thousands of jobs.

S. 169, the Immigration Innovation Act, is sponsored by Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) with initial support from Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.).  A number of other Senators have signed on as additional cosponsors.

IEEE-USA has been one of the loudest critics in Washington of the H-1B program for more than a decade.  H-1B visas are temporary work permits.  They allow companies (who own the visas) to hire foreign workers for six years, plus an unlimited number of years if the company is asking for a green card for the worker.  H-1B workers have difficulty changing jobs, cannot start their own companies and cannot become citizens without first securing a green card. 

Companies have far more control over H-1B workers than they would over an American, creating a powerful economic incentive for companies to hire an H-1B worker instead of an American.  This is legal under the H-1B program.

Worse, a huge percentage of H-1B visas are used by outsourcing companies — firms whose business model is to replace American workers with low-paid foreign workers.  The H-1B is tailor made for outsourcers because the visas are totally controlled by companies and H-1B workers can’t easily quit.  This makes it simple to control where workers are employed, how long they will be employed, and how much they will be paid.  In 2011, over 50 percent of all authorized H-1Bs in several states went to outsourcing companies.  Outsourcers received a large percentage of the visas in all 50 states.

Several of the outsourcing companies employ tens of thousands of people in this country on H-1Bs and other temporary visas, while employing almost no American citizens.  Many of their employees are doing jobs that used to be done by American engineers — until the outsourcers came along.  Again, this is legal under the H-1B program.

S. 169 increases the number of H-1Bs available annually by:

  • Increasing the visa base cap from 65,000 to 115,000

  • Exempting graduate students from the cap, resulting in around 30,000 more visas

  • Allowing spouses of H-1B workers to work, resulting in approximately 20,000 more STEM workers

  • Creating a “market-based” escalator that allows the base cap to quickly rise to 300,000 visas each year. 

  • Maintaining the uncapped exemption for non-profits and research institutions, including universities, resulting in approximately 85,000 visas annually.

Taken together, these changes will authorize between 400,000 and 450,000 H-1B visas each year.  For perspective, the U.S. economy averaged 56,000 new STEM jobs annually over the past decade.

S. 169 is not all bad.  The bill includes a reasonable increase in the EB visa program.  Unlike H-1B visas, EB visas are green cards.  People who get one become immigrants and permanent legal residents of the United States.  After 5 years, they can petition for citizenship. 

EB visas, like all green cards, are owned by the immigrants who use them, which allows the immigrants to behave like American workers.  They can quit, start their own businesses, go back to school or go and live in a commune in upstate New York if they wish.  Since they can behave like Americans, green card holders get paid and treated like Americans, placing everyone on an even playing field.

S. 169  would exempt STEM graduate students in the United States from the EB cap, much like the STEM Jobs Act that passed the House of Representatives last year.  Unfortunately, S. 169 also exempts these same students from the H-1B cap — and companies get to pick which visa they use.  It is unclear why Congress would create this perverse system that allows businesses to decide whether they want make graduates of our top universities American citizens or keep them as short-term foreign workers.

The bill would also recapture a number of EB visas that went unused in previous years.  This provision is designed to eliminate the backlog of immigrants waiting, as long as ten years in some cases, for an EB visa.  This is a worthy goal, but dramatically increases the number of H-1B workers, many of whom will want a green card, ensures that the backlog will exceed its current size in a few years, exacerbating one of the problems S. 169 was supposed to solve.

S. 169 also places a small $1,000 fee on new H-1B visas.  This fee would go directly to schools, universities and researchers to help promote STEM education in the United States.  Currently, most H-1B retraining fees go to the Department of Labor.  Efforts by the DOL to provide retraining for American workers affected by the H-1B have been resoundingly ineffective.  Passing the fees on to schools promises to be a more effective way of training American workers for STEM jobs.

But while IEEE-USA supports the EB and funding provisions in of S. 169, in the end the H-1B provisions make the bill very dangerous to the American STEM workforce.

In conversations with legislators, including supporters of the bill, it is clear that most members of Congress want to make it easier for skilled immigrants to come to the United States, but don’t understand the difference between H-1Bs and green cards.  They don’t understand how damaging the H-1B program is to American engineers, immigrants and the American economy.

Their voters will have to educate them.  IEEE-USA suggests that all IEEE members contact their legislators immediately to express their opposition to any plans to expand the H-1B visa program.  Contact information can be found at www.senate.gov and www.house.gov

If you have questions, contact Russell Harrison at r.t.harrison@ieee.org or 202-530-8326.


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


Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s Senior Legislative Representative for Grassroots Affairs.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


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