Jobless push for visa reform

A Connecticut activist group is behind several H-1B and L-1 visa bills in Congress

WASHINGTON -- The controversial L-1 and H-1B visas are under assault in Congress, in large part because of the activism of a group of laid-off Connecticut IT workers.

Of the five bills that have been introduced this year to reform the two visa programs, three were written by Connecticut lawmakers.

"We've heard quite a bit from constituents in our district concerned about losing their jobs," said Lesley Sillaman, a spokeswoman for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who is seeking restrictions on L-1 visa use.

The group DeLauro has been working with, the Organization for the Rights of American Workers (TORAW) in Meriden, Conn., was formed less than a year ago. One of the group's founders, James Pace, a laid-off IT consultant, learned the ropes of activism in the early 1970s, when he fought the state's motorcycle helmet law. "It all comes down to backyard politics," said Pace.

Laid-off IT consultant James Pace is a leader in TORAW's fight for L-1 and H-1B visa reform.
Laid-off IT consultant James Pace is a leader in TORAW's fight for L-1 and H-1B visa reform.
Among other activities, TORAW attended an open forum meeting that Rep. Nancy Johnson held in her Connecticut district several months ago. Six TORAW members in the audience peppered Johnson with questions about the visa programs. "We took over the whole meeting," said Pace. Subsequent local newspaper coverage focused on offshore outsourcing.

On July 28, Johnson, a Republican, joined Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut in sponsoring the USA Jobs Protection Act to reform the visa laws.

In a hearing late last month on the L-1 visa, Dodd said that from 1997 to 2000, some 3.4 million H-1B and L-1 visas were approved, 70,000 in Connecticut alone. Dodd said a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests abuse.

The L-1 allows companies to transfer foreign employees with specialized skills into the U.S. But critics contend the program brings in foreign replacements who will be trained to take over IT jobs held by U.S. citizens.

The H-1B, a visa that lets firms bring skilled workers into the U.S. for up to six years, is also a hot issue. But its cap will shrink from 195,000 to 65,000 in October; the L-1 has no cap, though DeLauro's bill would impose a 35,000 limit.

One day after Dodd and Johnson introduced their bills, the Information Technology Association of America released a memorandum suggesting L-1 program reforms, including the visa's requirement that employees have some "specialized knowledge." The ITAA wants a more restrictive definition of what specialized knowledge entails.

Legislative restrictions such as those imposed in DeLauro's bill would hurt the ability of U.S. firms "to move people around globally," said Jeff Lande, a vice president at the Arlington Va.-based ITAA.

Offshore work is a hot issue in other states as well, but Connecticut is known for its high wages and a heavy concentration of financial services firms, which are major offshore users.

Donald Klepper-Smith, chief economist at consulting firm Scillia Dowling and Natarelli LLC in New Haven, Conn., said Connecticut employers face a cost of doing business that's 12% higher than the national average. The state has shed 46,000 jobs since mid-2000, out of an employment base of about 1.65 million. "Basically, we're flat-lining in the state of Connecticut," he said.

Pace, who said TORAW co-founder John Bauman also deserves credit for the group's success, realizes that the provisions in some of the bills won't appease all critics. But the chief goal is to get legislators to work together. Meanwhile, TORAW is recruiting members outside of Connecticut. "I know we can do it in other states," said Pace.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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