An H-1B cap hike would mean a grim future for workers

In the immigration debate, its tech versus academics

WASHINGTON -- If Congress approves comprehensive immigration reform, it will likely more than double the cap on H-1B visas. What would happen then?

On Friday, some of the leading academic critics of the H-1B program took part in a forum held via conference call to discuss the problems the visa program is creating, and what will happen if the cap grows from 85,000 to 180,000, as proposed in the Senate's immigration bill.

More jobs will be sent offshore if the H-1B cap is increased -- that was one warning. Another was that age discrimination against IT workers over age 35 will increase as the percentage of guest workers in the tech workforce rises.

The litany of potential woes associated with hiking the H-1B cap was long and bleak, filled with somber predictions such as these: Americans will have a harder time finding jobs, wages will suffer, U.S. students may decide not to study science and engineering, and America's capacity for innovation will decline.

Those predictions came from a group that included Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Hal Salzman, professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers; Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School; and Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.

The forum was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). The intent was to dispel the notion that there's a shortage of tech and engineering talent and to counter high-tech industry lobbying.

Stephen Miller, Sessions' communications director, who introduced the conference call, said the purpose of immigration reform should be twofold: to make it easier for American college graduates "to find jobs with good pay with rising wages," and to "make it harder for companies to circumvent and avoid hiring Americans."

Hira said science and engineering workers account for about 5% of the overall workforce, but IT work "plays an outsize role in economic growth and national security" and paying attention to the technology sector's health is critical.

"The advocates for more H-1Bs have claimed that there is a systemic widespread shortage of STEM workers," said Hira, referring to people who work in disciplines related to science, technology engineering and math. And while H-1B advocates argue that the visa program is justified because it fills gaps in the labor market, Hira said it operates in a way has nothing to do with shortages.

"The majority of the H-1B program is now being used for cheaper workers," he said. More than 50% of visas issued last year were used by IT outsourcing firms such as Infosys, Cognizant and Tata Consultancy Services.

The offshore business model involves bringing in lower-cost H-1B holders from overseas and replacing American workers, said Hira. "Instead of complementing the U.S. workforce, as it should, [the H-1B program is] actually a substitute for the U.S. workforce [that takes] away future opportunities by shipping that work overseas," he said.

The wage floors set in the H-1B program are far below market wages for American workers, and there is no requirement to recruit or look for U.S. citizens first, said Hira. "You bring them in to undercut Americans," he said.

Salzman said that only one of every two STEM graduates is now employed in a STEM job after graduation, even if they're trained to work in professional fields such as computer science and engineering. Schools "produce 50% more graduates than are hired every year," he said.

Supply is also very responsive to demand, and average wages, adjusted, have remained the same since the 1990s, said Salzman.

Today, guest workers fill one-third to a one-half of all openings in IT each year, said Salzman. Among people younger than 30 years of age, guest workers account for about two-thirds of all new hires in IT, he said.

Guest workers make up about 30% to 40% of the IT workforce "and we expect that number to be increasing as a large supply comes in," said Salzman.

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