Grassley: H-1B visas being used to displace U.S. workers

But senator says he'd consider increasing annual cap if visa program is reformed

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) this week attacked the H-1B visa program, charging that it takes jobs away from American workers. But Grassley also said that he's willing to consider an increase in the annual visa cap if proponents agree to include reforms in the bill.

The H-1B program was "intended to fill jobs for a temporary amount of time while the country invested in American workers to pick up the skills they needed," Grassley said in the Senate on Monday, according to a transcript of his remarks. "Unfortunately, the H-1B program is so popular that it's now replacing the U.S. labor force."

Grassley, who has been a vocal H-1B critic, also cited a string of "bad apple" practices associated with the visa program. "One of my constituents has shared copies of e-mails showing how he's often bombarded with requests by companies who want to lease their H-1B workers to him," the senator said, referring to visa holders who are awaiting a work assignment -- or on the bench, in industry parlance.

"Another constituent sent me a letter saying that he saw firsthand how foreign workers were brought in while Iowans with similar qualifications were let go," Grassley said. "He tells me that he is a computer professional with more than 20 years of experience. He was laid off and has yet to find a job."

Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pushed for H-1B reforms in legislation that was introduced last spring and then folded into a comprehensive immigration reform bill. However, the latter measure failed to win approval in the Senate.

They also have been gathering data on H-1B usage, including a finding that nine IT offshoring companies based overseas, most of them in India, used about 20,000 visas during the federal government's 2006 fiscal year.

Among the H-1B reforms sought by Grassley and Durbin are rules requiring employers to attest that they aren't displacing U.S. workers by hiring H-­1B visa holders and that they have taken "good-faith steps" to hire American citizens. The reform proposals put forward by the two senators would also give the U.S. Department of Labor more investigative powers and hike penalties for noncompliance, among other changes.

In addition, Grassley is seeking an increase in the H-1B application fee from $1,500 to $5,000. The U.S. uses the visa fees to fund scholarships for science, engineering and technology students.

"I'm willing to consider an increase in H-1B visa supply, but only if reforms are included," he said this week.

The immigration reform bill that was quashed by the Senate in June would have increased the current annual cap of 85,000 visas, which includes 20,000 that are set aside for foreign workers with advanced degrees from U.S. universities, to an all-inclusive limit of 115,000. Since the bill was rejected, there have been ongoing efforts to raise the H-1B cap in other pieces of legislation.

The push to increase the cap is also coming from groups outside of the IT industry, such as ones from the health care market. But high-tech companies typically have been the largest users of the visas.

Compete America, a Washington-based lobbying group that is spearheading a coalition of IT vendors and universities, is urging Congress to act on a cap increase bill before year's end. Robert Hoffman, an Oracle Corp. executive who is co-chair of Compete America, said the group has "always remained open to providing reforms of the program." But he argued that some of reforms Grassley is seeking would make the H-1B program too costly for U.S. firms to administer.

"We have said this from Day One: All things being equal, of course, we are going to hire the American worker," Hoffman said. "It's cheaper to hire an American worker." He added that companies need to employ support teams of administrators and attorneys in order to bring H-1B workers aboard.

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