Senator questions hiring of H-1B workers by two federal entities

Grassley seeks information on use of visa program by the NIH and Fannie Mae

The National Institutes of Health employed more than 300 H-1B workers during the federal government's 2006 fiscal year, prompting Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to ask in a letter to NIH officials why a federal agency is hiring foreign workers with temporary visas.

Grassley, a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and a leading critic of the H-1B visa program, today also fired off a letter with a similar set of questions to the Federal National Mortgage Association, also known as Fannie Mae. The Washington-based lender began as a government agency before becoming a private business that operates under a congressional charter.

During fiscal 2006, which ended in September of last year, the NIH "hired or otherwise employed" 322 people through the H-1B visa program, according to Grassley. Fannie Mae had 141 H-1B workers during the same period, he wrote. Grassley said in a statement that the NIH and Fannie Mae were the only federal or government-chartered entities among the top 200 users of H-1B visas in fiscal 2006, with the NIH making the top 100.

"I'm asking questions today to find out how many taxpayer dollars are being used to recruit foreign workers and how invested our government-backed entities are in this visa program," Grassley said in a statement.

In the letters, he asked the NIH and Fannie Mae to provide an accounting of how many full- and part-time H-1B workers they have employed each year dating back to January 2002, along with the job titles of the H-1B holders.

The senator is also seeking detailed descriptions of the steps that the NIH and Fannie Mae take to hire American workers before filling jobs with H-1B holders, plus information on the number of layoffs made by the two organizations since 2002, including the job titles of affected employees.

Grassley acknowledged in the letters that the H-1B program "provides an avenue for U.S. employers to temporarily employ skilled foreign workers when the domestic workforce is unable to meet employer demands." But, he added, "this system is open to abuse and has raised concerns about whether American workers are being protected and whether H-1B employers are skirting the law in order to hire cheaper foreign labor."

The senator addressed the letters to Elias Zerhouni, the NIH's director, and Daniel Mudd, president and CEO of Fannie Mae. Grassley wrote that as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, he has a "duty to conduct oversight" of federal entities and their immigration practices.

Grassley said he became interested in the NIH and Fannie Mae because they were among the top 200 users of H-1B visas in fiscal 2006. The NIH was No. 55, and Fannie Mae was No. 199, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. That made them the only federal or government-chartered entities on that list, Grassley said.

Officials at the NIH and Fannie Mae weren't immediately available for comment on Grassley's letters, which asked that responses to his questions be submitted by Dec. 12.

Last spring, Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) released data showing that the largest user of H-1B visas during fiscal 2006 was Bangalore, India-based offshore services provider Infosys Technologies Ltd., which received 4,908 visas. It was followed by Wipro Ltd., another Bangalore-based outsourcing firm that used 4,002 visas.

Microsoft Corp. was the third-largest H-1B user that year, with 3,117 visas, and Bill Gates, the software vendor's chairman, has been among the most vocal advocates of raising the annual cap on the number of visas that can be issued. The cap currently is 85,000, including 65,000 regular visas and 20,000 that are set aside for foreign nationals who have advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

The NIH wasn't the only public-sector agency that was a major user of H-1B visas during fiscal 2006. New York City's public school system was issued 642 visas that year, putting it in 22nd place on the list of visa users.

Grassley sent his letters to the NIH and Fannie Mae on the same day that Compete America, a lobbying group with heavy backing from IT vendors, said that it had sent a letter to Congress urging legislators to take action on a proposal to increase the H-1B cap before they adjourn for the year.

Citing an effort by the European Union to attract skilled workers with its Blue Card temporary visa program, Compete America contended that the visa system in the U.S. "should better reflect the realities" of the global economy. "At a time when other nations are aggressively taking steps to improve their own competitive position, the United States is failing to do so by sustaining a visa system that turns away future innovators," the organization said in its letter.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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