Corporate Thirst for Foreign Workers Strong as Ever

Applications for controversial H-1B guest worker visas exceed annual cap in just few days

It took less than a week for the government to receive enough applications for high-tech guest-worker visas to reach the cap for the entire year, indicating that corporate demand for foreign labor is as strong as ever.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Friday that the cap for fiscal year 2018 had been reached. The government began receiving applications on Monday.

“My guess is they hit the limit on the first day.”

Officials from the agency said they will not know for several weeks the exact number of applications that employers submitted. In the past three years it has averaged more than 300,000 for 85,000 H-1B visas. Although the government reported that the cap had been reached Friday, experts said that in reality it probably came much sooner.

“My guess is they hit the limit on the first day,” said Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The controversial H-1B visa program allows employers to sponsor visas on behalf of foreign workers for up to three years in certain fields. The visa can be renewed for another three years and indefinitely on a year-to-year basis for anyone who has applied for a green card and permanent residency.

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Proponents contend that it is a way for companies to address shortages of workers who possess specialized skills. But critics argue that there are few mechanisms to ensure that companies try to hire Americans and that the salaries paid to many H-1B workers are so low that they drive down wages for U.S. workers.

Donna Conroy, director of the advocacy group Bright Future Jobs, said most of the companies applying for H-1B visas have not even posted job openings. Most of the visas will go to foreign workers for jobs that will not be filled until the end of this year and the beginning of 2018, she said.

Americans will not even have a chance to compete for those positions, Conroy said.

“It’s actually a tool to block U.S. workers from job openings,” she said. “When you block qualified candidates, that’s called employment discrimination.”

Help Wanted Ads in India, Not America
A 2014 report by Bright Future Jobs and several other organizations analyzed four help-wanted ads posted on an Indian job portal from October through December 2013 by Experis IT India, a subsidiary of Manpower Group. The ads sought workers for American-based jobs that had start dates between October 2014 and March 2015.

There were no comparable ads on U.S job portals during that period, according to the report.

The fact that employers do not make a good-faith effort to find qualified Americans undercuts their argument that H-1B visas are needed because of a skills shortage in the United States, Conroy said.

“If they’re not looking and testing the labor market, they don’t know,” she said.

The next step for the USCIS will be to examine the applications and weed out those that do not qualify. The government then will randomly select from the remaining petitions for 65,000 visas. The government also will select from a separate batch of applications for 20,000 visas reserved for foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

Traditionally, the government rejects a relatively small number of H-1B applications. From fiscal years 2013 through 2015 — the last year for which data are available — employers submitted 966,960 applications, and the government accepted 877,947.

Those numbers are not directly comparable because some rejected petitions in any given year were submitted in the previous year. But it gives an idea of how few petitions get flagged.

“Under the Obama administration, when rubber stamping visas was part of the game, that went on,” said lawyer John Miano, co-author of “Sold Out: How High-Tech Billionaires & Bipartisan Beltway Crapweasels Are Screwing America’s Best & Brightest Workers.”

That could change. Responding to new directives from President Donald Trump, the USCIS announced a number of changes. It suspended “premium processing,” which allowed employers to pay a fee in order to have petitions processed first. The government also announced that it would subject applications on behalf of lower-wage computer programs to more scrutiny.

“There was no scrutiny to begin with,” said Salzman, the Rutgers professor.

Sending Message to Companies
Salzman said the new rules, in and of themselves, do not have a huge impact. But he said the changes send a message.

“My read on it is they’re just doing a lot of signaling to the industry that, ‘We’re going to be looking at things,'” he said.

Slowing down the H-1B process and throwing up bureaucratic obstacles could convince some employers that it would be easier and more cost-effective just to recruit American employees, Salzman said.

“This may not be the most reliable source of hiring,” he said. “There’s no end to which a bureaucracy can slow down a process, intentionally or unintentionally.”

In addition, the Justice Department and USCIS announced new efforts to target fraud, providing an email address for workers to report abuses. The Justice Department said it would investigate possible discrimination claims against companies that bypass citizens.

Salzman said no one really knows how common fraud is. But he said he has heard anecdotes of salary rebates that guest workers are forced to pay placement firms and other abuses.

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“They’re abusing H-1B folks, too,” he said. “The abuse is on both sides, both groups of workers.”

Miano said the Trump administration could take more substantive steps that it has not for this year’s round of visa applications. Some could be done administratively, while others would require a formal rule-making process.

For instance, he said, it could change how the visas are awarded. Instead of a random lottery, he said, the administration could give preference to employers offering higher salaries. Miano said the government could reduce how long the visas are valid. Instead of three years with a three-year extension, he said, the administration could make it a two-year visa with a one-year renewal.

“There are a whole lot of regulations they can change … Six years is way too long for a guest worker,” he said.

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