U.S.: H-1B workers outnumber unemployed techies

Fraud case raises questions about visa program

WASHINGTON -- As unemployment among tech workers increases with the recession, the U.S. government is raising broad questions as part of a federal case over H-1Bs about the connection of visa fraud to the unemployment of IT workers.

The government's interest in H-1B fraud-related unemployment turned up in court filings in a case in U.S. District Court in Iowa against a New Jersey IT firm, Visions Systems Group in South Plainfield, NJ, which was indicted in February on visa-related fraud charges.

Visions Systems was included in a sweep that led to arrests of some 11 people in six states. The government, in announcing its action, said the companies and people involved were "displacing qualified American workers," but didn't identify how many. In court papers filed last month, the U.S. indicated it may be getting ready to do just that.

The U.S. said it is "prepared to demonstrate to the court the manner in which the defendant's schemes, along with similar schemes by similar companies have substantially deprived U.S. citizens of employment." The government then points out that "in January of 2009, the total number of workers employed in the information technology occupation under the H-1B program substantially exceeded the 241,000 unemployed U.S. citizen workers within the same occupation."

The U.S. government's brief doesn't explain to what extent fraud is responsible for tech worker unemployment, or cite sources for its data. Estimates of the size of the tech labor force depend on what government labor categories are included.

One analysis by the TechServe Alliance (formerly the National Association of Computer Consultants), found that tech employment was down nearly 200,000 from December, after reaching a high 4.1 million in November.

The exact size of the H-1B labor force in the U.S. is uncertain because of a lack of accurate data. The U.S. sets a cap of 85,000 H-1B visas annually.

In the case of Vision Systems, the U.S. said the company "consistently hired only foreign workers in order to fill information technology positions within the United States." The government said "although the exact amount of loss to U.S. citizen workers has not yet been determined, there is no question that the amount of lost wages and benefits to U.S. citizens has been substantial."

Vision Systems attorneys, in court papers, dispute these allegations, and said "there is no exclusivity to a job's seeker's chance to apply for a job," and that anyone could apply. Vision Systems is fighting the charges and has filed for dismissal.

Regarding the broader issues raised by the government, Vision Systems attorneys suggested that the U.S. is politicizing the case, and that the government is arguing "that there is something illegitimate about the entire H-1B visa program, not just specific applications of it."

There are interesting arguments being raised in the courts by the U.S. over the H-1B visa. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in its case fighting the Programmers Guild and others from overturning the extension allowing foreign nationals with technical degrees to work on student visas from one year to 29 months, argued that the H-1B visa is needed to avoid a competitive disadvantage.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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