The Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies on Wednesday produced a map showing the location of companies that make heavy use of foreign guest workers.
Clusters in majors cities of swing states like Florida and North Carolina could prove a factor on Election Day Tuesday.
“Both candidates in one way or the other have been known to favor the H-1B — [Democrat Hillary] Clinton as a matter of policy and [Republican Donald] Trump by his use of the program.”
The map uses Department of Labor statistics to show the location of companies that hire large numbers of workers on H-1B visas, which allow businesses to bring in foreigners for at least three years. The practice — spotlighted at companies like Disney using the visas to lay off American workers — has generated major controversy.
One ingredient is missing, though — high-level attention from the candidates.
“The H-1B program has not been much discussed in the election,” said David North, a fellow at the think tank who analyzed the data. “Both candidates in one way or the other have been known to favor the H-1B — [Democrat Hillary] Clinton as a matter of policy and [Republican Donald] Trump by his use of the program.”
The map plots the location of U.S. companies defined as “H-1B dependent,” which is a firm of 25 employees or more with an H-1B workforce as least 15 percent of the total. Smaller companies have different criteria. Those companies must comply with rules mandating that the foreign workers earn the “prevailing wage” for their occupation and industry. But critics contend those rules lack teeth.
“They’re mostly paperwork and process-type hoops,” said Chris Chmielewski, director of content and advocacy for NumbersUSA.
Chmielewski said companies are adept at getting around those restrictions. For example, the national prevailing wage for a computer programmer is far less than it is in a high-cost place like the Silicon Valley. Companies in those places can undercut their foreign workers and still comply with the law.
Various proposals to crack down on abuse have been kicked around Congress, but none has progressed very far.
The Center for Immigration Studies report also tracks the small number of employers who have been classified as “debarred” or “willful violators” for failing to comply with regulations governing the program. Those companies are prohibited from having H-1B visas for a certain period of time.
Chmielewski said voters in many of the states with large concentrations of H-1B workers also have been hit hard by manufacturing decline, which probably is a more powerful draw for Trump.
“They’re probably identifying more with the trade deals,” he said. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think there’s a ton of H-1B voters across the country.”
Still, Chmielewski added, foreign guest workers are one piece of an immigration story that has heightened the anxiety of American workers concerned about stagnant wages and job security in some parts of the country.
“It’s definitely fueled the rise of Trumpism,” he said.
North noted that discrimination laws in the United States forbid hiring a white employee over a black applicant or favoring one job candidate over another because of religion. But companies can give preference to foreigners — sometimes from a specific country.
“It’s something we find distasteful,” he said. “Some employers literally have 99 percent of their H-1B workers from India. But the equal employment rules simply end at the water’s edge … It’s terrible public policy.”
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The intention of the H-1B visa was to give companies flexibility to important foreigners with specialized skills that Americans lack. North offered the hypothetical example of a company in search of a Ph.D. with Mongolian-language skills. It would be perfectly acceptable to use a guest worker visa in circumstance like that, he said.
“But we’re not talking about that kind of speciality, mostly,” he said.
Chmielewski agreed. The evidence is overwhelming that companies want the program as a cost-cutting tool, he said.
“They want to use foreign workers because they tend to be much cheaper than Americans,” he said.