GAO, DOJ seek H-1B visa reforms

Feds want employers to post to Web plans to hire H-1B workers; DOJ seeks labor market test prior to H-1B hires

WASHINGTON -- The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a major report Friday on the H-1B visa program that assesses its use and recommends reforms.

The watchdog agency's report has drawn reactions from other federal agencies, but particularly the U.S. Department of Justice, which has added to the report's findings with recommendations of its own.

The GAO's report -- one of the most exhaustive studies on the H-1B program by the U.S. in recent years -- sliced and diced data from various agencies about H-1B use to offer a portrait based on country and job skill.

About half of the users work in computer-related occupations in the 20-year-old visa program.

Investigators interviewed users of the visa as well as labor advocates but focused many of its recommendations on what federal agencies could be doing better to gather data, report it, and coordinate on monitoring and enforcement.

Overall, the report seems to give weight to the concerns raised by supporters and opponents of the program alike.

However, the GAO seeks some improvements. One recommendation calls for the creation of a centralized Web site where businesses would be required to post notice of their intent to hire H-1B workers.

This recommendation was endorsed by the DOJ. Leon Rodriguez, chief of staff for the DOJ's civil rights division, wrote in a letter included in the report that the Web site "would help U.S. workers determine if they have been impermissibly replaced by H-1B visa holders and identify employers who may be engaged in a pattern of discrimination against U.S. workers."

But the DOJ went beyond the GAO's recommendations and made one of the own. It said that all employers, before they hire an H-1B holder, "should be required to 'test' the labor market to determine whether qualified U.S. workers are available and to hire any equally or better qualified U.S. workers who apply."

The U.S. Labor Department says that an H-1B employer "is not required to recruit U.S. workers" unless it is deemed a dependent employer, meaning it has passed a certain threshold in hiring or is a violator. But these employers need only attest, rather than demonstrate, that they took good-faith steps to hire a U.S. worker, the GAO says.

The majority of H-1B workers approved between 2000 and 2009 were born in Asia, with India accounting for about 47%, followed by China at 9%.

Over the same period, more than 40% of approved H-1B workers were hired to fill occupations in systems analysis and programming, the GAO reported.

GAO H-1B report
H-1B visa approvals by occupation, FY200-FY2009. Source: GAO.
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