New Senate bill seeks sweeping H-1B changes

H-1B visas should be distributed to U.S. grads first, not outsourcing firms, say Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin

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A new bill in Congress would give foreign students who graduate from U.S. schools priority in getting an H-1B visa.

The legislation also "explicitly prohibits" the replacement of American workers by visa holders.

This bill, the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, was announced Thursday by its co-sponsors, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), longtime allies on H-1B reform. Grassley is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which gives this bill an immediate leg up in the legislative process.

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This legislation would end the annual random distribution, via a lottery, of H-1B visas, and replace it with a system to give priority to certain types of students.

"Congress created these programs to complement America's high-skilled workforce, not replace it," said Grassley, in a statement. "Unfortunately, some companies are trying to exploit the programs by cutting American workers for cheaper labor."

Foreign nationals in the best position to get one of the 85,000 H-1B visas issued annually will have earned an advanced degree from a U.S. school, have a well-paying job offer, and have preferred skills. The specific skills weren't identified, but will likely be STEM-related.

It will be up to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to develop this priority system.

The bill requires "all employers who seek to hire H-1B visa holders to first make a good-faith effort to recruit American workers." This is something Grassley and Durbin have long sought in prior bills, but faced opposition from industry.

IT services firms that use H-1B workers to offshore work will face new restrictions. The bill prohibits a firm with "more than 50 employees, of which at least half are H-1B or L-1 holders, from hiring additional H-1B employees."

President-elect Donald Trump's administration -- which takes office Friday at noon -- is also considering changes to the visa lottery system, and it's entirely possible that he could order reforms in advance of legislation.

Among the ideas that are circulating is a distribution system that gives priority to salary and/or favors non-dependent H-1B-using firms over H-1B-dependent firms. A dependent firm is a classification given to an employer that has 15% or more workers on a visa.

There are a lot of other provisions in the Grassley-Durbin bill. It would "enhance" the ability of the U.S. Department of Labor to conduct investigations. It would also require new data reporting, including the gender of H-1B workers, something the government has not made available.

The bill appears to raise the wages of L-1 workers, and includes new enforcement and audits. The L-1 is used for intra-company transfers.

"For years, foreign outsourcing companies have used loopholes in the laws to displace qualified American workers and facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs," said Durbin. "The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act would end these abuses and protect American and foreign workers from exploitation."

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