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GAO to study impact of H-1B program on hiring

September 11, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- There's no shortage of anecdotal reports from U.S. workers that the H-1B visa program is costing Americans jobs. But proving it has been elusive because companies don't disclose whom they hire or lay off.
That's a problem facing the U.S. General Accounting Office as it embarks on a study to answer a question posed by two Democrats on the U.S. House Science Committee: Do companies show a preference for retaining H-1B workers, and if so, why?
The GAO study, due out sometime next year, is expected to arrive during a congressional debate on whether the cap on the controversial program should be allowed to shrink from 195,000, its level for the past two fiscal years, to 65,000 after the next fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2003.
The H-1B program is a contentious issue in the technology community. Critics charge that in many cases, foreign workers are hired because of their willingness to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. Industry groups counter that the U.S. doesn't supply enough workers with technical skills to meet demand. H-1B employees, hired for certain technical skills, can work in the U.S. for six years through the visa program, and possibly longer under some exceptions.
The value of the upcoming report will rest on the strength of its data. But GAO officials haven't determined how to research the H-1B program's impact, and agency officials are now planning to meet with House Science Committee staff members to discuss a research methodology, according to agency and congressional staff members.
The plan is already drawing criticism from one H-1B advocate. Harris Miller, who heads the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., said he believes that the latest H-1B usage data is proof enough that the program isn't being abused.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service recently reported that it granted 60,500 H-1B visas in the nine-month period that ended June 30, representing a 54% drop from the same period last year.
"The numbers speak for themselves," said Miller. The downturn shows that H-1B's critics are wrong about the visa program serving as a supply of cheap labor, he said.
"If they [the H-1B opponents] were right, which they are not, there would just be as many H-1Bs today as a year ago," said Miller. Given the pressure on companies to cut payroll, he said, wouldn't they use "more H-1Bs rather than less H-1Bs during an economic downturn?"
But George McClure, who heads the career policy committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.-USA, points to rising unemployment numbers for computer and electronics engineers, along with reports from IEEE members who say they have lost jobs to H-1B workers.
"We've got lots of unemployed members ... who can do the jobs that they are bringing in H-1Bs for," said McClure. He said he has heard from engineers who were instructed to train H-1B visa holders and were then laid off.
But McClure said he doesn't know how the GAO can accurately assess the situation, other than to talk to affected workers and hear their stories.
"If the concern is with unemployment, then they ought to be talking to some of the people who are unemployed," said McClure.
U.S. Reps. James Barcia and Lynn Rivers, both Michigan Democrats and House Science Committee members, requested the GAO study a year ago. The GAO divided their request into two parts, starting with a study on the effectiveness of a training program that has been funded through H-1B fees. That report is due in a matter of weeks.
The H-1B training program, which has collected $138 million fees paid by employers who sponsor H-1B visa holders, has been called "ineffective" by the Bush administration because it isn't providing training that would lessen demand for H-1B workers.
These visa holders typically have bachelor's and, in many cases, advanced degrees. But a lot of the training programs are being used to prepare workers for low-tech jobs such as installing cable, the administration said.
The Bush administration's position was determined before anyone had evaluated the training program, said one congressional staff member familiar with the GAO study. That study may yet find some value in the program, he said.

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