H-1B at 20: How the 'tech worker visa' is remaking IT in America

The H-1B visa program turns 20 years old this month. Not everyone in IT is saying 'Best Wishes.'

This story is part of our special report on the 20th anniversary of the H-1B visa, which also includes first-person accounts from five IT workers who have been directly affected by the H-1B program and visual and interactive tools to help you analyze H-1B visa data.

When Congress created the H-1B visa program 20 years ago this month, it sent the American IT industry into uncharted territory from which it has yet to emerge.

The U.S. had an H-1 visa for foreign nationals with "distinguished merit and ability" prior to 1990, but that year, in response to warnings of an emerging "skills gap" or "skills mismatch" among U.S. engineering and technology professionals, Congress broadened the scope of the visa.

The H-1B incorporated specialty occupations -- including such IT roles as programming, systems analysis, and network and systems support -- with a minimum requirement of a bachelor's degree. The H-1B visa also allowed workers to pursue permanent residency.

Over the years, supporters of the visa have included Microsoft's Bill Gates and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in 2009 told Congress that the annual visa cap of 85,000 is "too small to meet the need" and that protecting U.S. IT workers from global competition creates a "privileged elite."

Groups like the Economic Policy Institute have begged to differ. In a report released just last month by EPI researcher Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he argues that the H-1B along with the L-1 visa, which is used by multinational firms to transfer employees for temporary work, allow employers to bypass U.S. workers "when recruiting for open positions and even [to] replace outright existing American workers" with visa-holding foreigners. The H-1B's wage requirements are too low, according to the report, and because visas are held by employers, not workers, the H-1B promotes a relationship "akin to indentured servitude."

That dovetails with the view of many domestic IT professionals, who have never subscribed to the idea that there was -- or is -- a skills mismatch in the industry. Among them is Kristine Serrano, laid off from IBM this year, who calls the skills gap a "myth" told by businesses and parroted by elected officials.

"The work didn't disappear. It's still being done; it is just being done by a group over in India now," said Serrano, who earned a master's degree in information science from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1993 and was initially hired by IBM as a Unix system administrator.

Serrano's point is what makes the issue contentious. IT professionals who have been displaced from their jobs because of offshore outsourcing believe that the H-1B visa has made government a complicit partner in the shift of jobs. They maintain that the H-1B visa and offshoring have become inextricably linked, with offshore companies placing H-1B workers in client sites in the U.S. with the intention of ultimately transferring the work overseas.

Visa supporters say offshoring does not lessen U.S. companies' need to hire foreign students with strong academic achievements, high-tech skills and potential.

Entrenched and expanding

Hate it or embrace it, in its two decades, the H-1B visa has become an entrenched part of global IT business, and its importance in international trade is expanding.

[Related: View maps and data showing the geographic concentration of 2009 H-1B visa applications for tech jobs as a heat map, by city or as a searchable, sortable database. And read H-1B: The voices behind the visa for individuals' stories of how the H-1B program has changed their lives.]

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