Bill in Congress would curb L-1 visa use for foreign workers

A congressman calls the L-1 a "back door to cheap labor"

WASHINGTON -- Legislation was introduced in Congress this week that would set curbs on the use of the L-1 visa, a controversial visa program that, like the H-1B visa, allows U.S. companies to bring in foreign workers.

The L-1 visa enables companies with subsidiaries abroad to transfer to the U.S. from other companies executives or workers with specialized skills. But critics contend that foreign outsourcing firms use it to import lower-paid workers who then replace higher-paid U.S. employees.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, (R-Fla.) called the L-1 visa a "back door to cheap labor" in his legislation. His bill would require that employees be transferred from their own subsidiaries and not from third-party outsourcers.

The bill's intent is to block foreign outsourcing firms, so-called "body shops," from using the visa to move foreign workers into U.S. positions. But the legislation may face opposition from all sides.

Mike Emmons, an Orlando-based activist who said he lost his consulting job because of L-1 visa, lobbied Mica heavily for action on the visa and said he's disappointed with Mica's legislative fix. Emmons said the legislation includes a large loophole that would allow a U.S. company to set up shop in India or some other country, hire workers there and then move those employees here.

"This is a pretty minuscule bill," said Emmons.

However, Vic Goel, a Greenbelt, Md.-based immigration attorney who represents high-tech companies, said the legislation could prevent a multinational firm from bringing in foreign workers to help clients. For instance, the foreign workers may have played a key role in software development and are needed to implement, service and maintain the software.

"The idea is to find a solution that promotes business and closes the door on the abusers," said Goel, explaining that such a solution could involve finding a way to differentiate between "project-based [work] vs. simple provisioning of warm bodies to fill seats."

According to Mica, there are currently more than 325,000 L-1 visa holders in the U.S.

H-1B visas allows foreign workers to take jobs in the U.S. for as long as six years. Someone with an L-1 visa can work in the U.S. for up to seven years.

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