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

H-1B visa Statue of Liberty America
Credit: Thinkstock

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.

[To comment on this story, visit Computerworld's Facebook page.]

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."

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
7 Wi-Fi vulnerabilities beyond weak passwords
Shop Tech Products at Amazon