Southern California Edison (SCE) IT workers replaced by H-1B contractors have become the latest Exhibit A in Congress for reformers of the visa program.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has long advocated for changes to the H-1B program to protect U.S. workers, said the Edison layoffs illustrate how some employers "are potentially using legal avenues to import foreign workers, lay-off qualified Americans, and then export jobs overseas.
"I was shocked by the heartless manner in which U.S. workers were injured," said Grassley in a Senate floor speech Wednesday.
Though the H-1B program can be "worthwhile," Grassley said he wants "pro-U.S. worker" reforms in it to thwart the temporary visa's misuse and abuse.
With these remarks, Grassley appears to be preparing for a legislative fight over the program.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is leading a bipartisan effort to increase the base H-1B cap from 65,000 to 195,000 and eliminate the cap on people who earn an advanced degree in a STEM (science, technology, education and math) field. That bill, called I-Squared, was introduced last month and not directly identified in Grassley's remarks. But it is the only H-1B bill in the Senate.
"The sponsors of the bill claim it will 'boost our competitiveness in the global economy,'" said Grassley. "This bill only makes the problem worse. It doesn't plug the loopholes. It doesn't make sure that American workers are put before foreign workers."
Grassley has tried to reform the H-1B program before. In the last Congress, he offered amendments to the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, although every amendment he offered was defeated.
In the new Congress, Grassley is now the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight over immigration. Moreover, its immigration subcommittee is chaired by U.S. Sen Jeff Sessions (R-Ala), who has also criticized the Edison layoffs and the H-1B program generally.
"I want my colleagues to know that I'm committed to this effort," said Grassley, regarding H-1B reform. "As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I don't intend on allowing legislation to move through this body without reforms to the H-1B visa program that protect the American worker."
SCE, the state's largest utility, signed contracts with two of the largest users of the H-1B visa, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, last summer.
SCE's IT workers, contacted by Computerworld, say they had to train their visa-holding replacements as a condition of severance. Edison said about 500 workers were affected directly -- 400 through layoffs and another 100 through voluntary separation.
In explaining its actions, SCE also produced what has become a smoking gun that underscores the H-1B program's cognitive dissonance. Edison said it is in full compliance with immigration law, "and is not hiring H-1B visa workers to replace displaced employees."
What Edison is doing, instead, is using contractors who rely heavily on H-1B workers. It is the contract workers who are replacing Edison's workers.
"Edison's cynical defense is built upon the shameless exploitation of a loophole in the H-1B laws," said Grassley. HE went on to cite reporting on the issue in Computerworld and the Los Angeles Times.
"The jobs being filled by H-1B workers are manifestly not jobs for which Americans are unavailable," said Grassley. "I say that because the jobs are currently filled by skilled American workers. It's not only disturbing that these American workers have been laid off, but also that some of them have reportedly had to train their own replacements."
Separately, Sessions this week attacked a White House decision to allow spouses of H-1B visa holders to seek work, if the visa holder is seeking a green card. Sessions cited the layoffs at Edison and some others in the tech sector as a reason not to make the rule change.
As many as 180,000 spouses, in the U.S. on H-4 visas, may be able to apply in the first year of implementation, according to the White House. In subsequent years, about 55,000 people each year may be eligible. The change is expected "to reduce the economic burdens and personal stresses that H-1B nonimmigrants and their families may experience" as they seek permanent residency.
"Tech companies have been laying off workers by the tens of thousands," said Sessions. "How does the Obama Administration respond? By bowing to special interest demands and expanding foreign worker programs by another 180,000. The Administration says this is to reduce the 'personal stresses' on guest workers. What about the stresses on American workers, and their families and spouses, and their children?"