U.S. Lawmakers Propose Revisions To Prevent H-1B Visa Misuse

Abuse of the H-1B visa program is now a national controversy. In June, the New York Times reported that H-1B visas are “being used by American employers to replace American workers with cheaper foreign labor.” That abuse, which potentially threatens the future of the H-1B visa program, needs to stop, because attracting talented workers in science, math, engineering, and technology is essential for U.S. economic success and growth in the years ahead. U.S. employers who genuinely need H-1B employees are also victims of the abuse because it makes fewer H-1B visas available for their legitimate, intended purpose.

H-1B visas are designed for college-educated international employees in occupations requiring highly specialized knowledge, but only when such hiring will not depress prevailing wages. Nevertheless, in many cases, laid-off American workers have reportedly been forced to train their lower-paid foreign replacements. Companies accused of abusing the H-1B visa program include Abbott Laboratories, the health care conglomerate based in Illinois, Southern California Edison, Disney, Toys “R” Us, and New York Life.

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Loopholes in the immigrations laws are at least partially responsible for the abuse. In many cases, U.S.-based businesses that employ H-1B international workers are not even required to consider U.S. workers before hiring from abroad. Many businesses outsource the actual hiring of H-1B workers to companies like Infosys and Tata, temporary staffing firms mostly located in India.

IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR QUICK IMMIGRATION REFORM?

Comprehensive immigration reform has been stalled in Congress for several years, and there’s little hope now for any significant reform until a new Congress convenes in 2017. U.S. employers who genuinely need to hire H-1B workers should consider seeking legal advice and services from an experienced Michigan or Ohio immigration attorney who can explain the H-1B program and its requirements.

Until recently, abuse of the H-1B visa program has been overlooked by lawmakers because attention has been so focused on other immigration issues – problems with border security and the controversy over President Obama’s executive orders regarding deferred action. While lawmakers are only now focusing on H-1B visa abuse, the U.S. workers impacted by it have been silent for only one reason.

Most displaced U.S. workers had to agree not to criticize their former employers as a condition of severance pay. As explained by the New York Times in June, these “nondisparagement agreements” – gag orders, for all practical purposes – have kept laid-off employees away from the public’s attention while allowing the employers to defend their hiring procedures as legal. Technically, the employers are in fact operating within the law – they’re simply exploiting its loopholes.

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However, that’s changing. More than a dozen ex-employees at Abbott have filed claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging they were discriminated against because of their U.S. citizenship. Ex-Disney employees have also filed federal lawsuits charging Disney and two outsourcing firms of colluding to replace U.S. workers with foreign nationals holding H-1B visas.

Leaders of both political parties have questioned the use of nondisparagement agreements. Senator Richard Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, have both offered proposed revisions to current immigration laws that would allow laid-off U.S. employees replaced by international workers to challenge their layoffs legally.

WHAT ARE LAWMAKERS SAYING ABOUT H-1B ABUSE?

“I have heard from workers who are fearful of retaliation,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told the New York Times. “They are told they can say whatever they want, except they can’t say anything negative about being fired.” Senator Durbin, who is from Illinois, vigorously criticized the layoffs and said that Abbott’s nondisparagement clause was “overly broad.”

Do foreign nationals participating in the H-1B visa program fill a legitimate gap in the U.S. labor force, or is the H-1B program exploited by some U.S. employers merely to save dollars at the expense of U.S. workers? That’s the concern that many are now expressing. Professor Hal Salzman, a labor expert at Rutgers University, told the Times that because of the loopholes, in the last five years, thousands of U.S. workers have been replaced by foreign nationals holding H-1B temporary visas.

Although many suspect that some U.S. businesses take advantage of the H-1B visa program simply to reduce labor costs, the Brookings Institution has published statistics demonstrating that foreign nationals holding H-1B visas, in fact, earn more than equally qualified U.S. workers in comparable jobs. Exploiting the H-1B visa program to boost the corporate bottom line is wrong, but it’s something we can all understand. Although the Department of Labor announced in 2015 that it is cracking down on U.S.-based businesses that exploit the H-1B visa program, what Congress really must do is close the loopholes that allow the abuses to continue legally.

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CAN U.S. EMPLOYERS STILL OBTAIN AND BENEFIT FROM H-1B VISAS?

Does the ongoing controversy mean that a U.S.-based business can no longer benefit from the H-1B visa program? Absolutely not. Despite the abuses, no employer in the United States has an edge over any other company in the pursuit of H-1B visas. And it’s never too early for employers to start preparing for next year’s H-1B filing period. The qualifications for H-1B visas are quite strict, and as you probably are aware, the demand for H-1B exceeds the supply.

U.S.-based employers are supposed to use the H-1B visas exclusively to hire international workers in occupations that require highly specialized knowledge. Raising the current cap on the number of H-1B visas that Congress authorizes each year would help close the gap between the low number of H-1B visas and the continually-expanding needs of growing U.S.-based businesses.

Stopping the abuse of the H-1B visa program is also an absolute imperative. Visas now being used by some employers simply to save money would become available to the employers who genuinely need highly-skilled international workers. International employees who receive H-1B visas must hold at least a bachelor’s degree. They are allowed to work in the U.S. for up to six years.

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Since 2005, Congress has capped the number of H-1B visas made available annually at 85,000, with 20,000 of those visas set aside for workers holding advanced degrees from U.S. institutions. H-1B visas will continue to be difficult – but not impossible – for employers to acquire until comprehensive immigration reform passes and the current abuses are ended. If you’re an employer in the United States attempting to acquire one or more H-1B visas, a Michigan or Ohio immigration attorney can handle the visa petitions on your behalf and help you to understand your legal obligations as an employer of H-1B visa holders.