Charting H-1B users, as attention shifts to L-1

Offshore outsourcing firms rely heavily on the H-1B visa to deliver services, and the chart accompanying this story provide data on the top users of the visa since 2009.

The chart, compiled from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) data, provides figures on approvals of both new H-1B visas and renewals of existing visas (H-1B visas must be renewed every three years). To calculate largest users of H-1B visas, Computerworld consolidated various versions (and spellings) of some company names, such as IBM Corp. and IBM India Private Ltd.

You can use the form below to search through the full, original database of H-1B visa approvals.

The H-1B data here, while conprehensive, doesn't tell the whole story of work visas. Missing is data on the L-1 visa, which is used for intra-company transfers.

For sure, the H-1B occupies the center of the workforce visa debate. But there has been little effort in Congress this term to change the H-1B cap, which remains at 85,000, including 20,000 visas set aside for advance degree graduates.

A separate legislative effort to make green cards, or permanent residency, somewhat automatic for students who receive advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math-related area has also stalled.

Use of the L-1 visa, which unlike H-1B doesn't require that an employee be paid a prevailing wage, has been growing.

There is no L-1 cap, though it is subject to some rules such as requiring that visa holders have "specialized knowledge." Specialized knowledge is now defined by the USCIS as "beyond the ordinary and not commonplace within the industry."

That rule aims is to limit the impact of the L-1 visa on U.S. workers.

The USCIS is considering changes to how it defines specialized knowledge, in response to concerns raised by a coalition of companies, including U.S. and Indian IT firms here and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

That possibility prompted a warning this week from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which believes the changes could result in job losses.

In an open letter to the USCIS by Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at EPI, and Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote that "expanding the definition, or interpreting it even more broadly than at present will result in putting downward pressure on the wages of U.S. workers employed in the main L-1 occupations and will keep unemployed U.S. workers - especially those who are highly educated and qualified for high-tech occupations - out of a job."

The EPI contends says its research shows that the leading users of the L-1 program are offshore outsourcing firms "whose business model is to first hire L-1 workers to learn the work done by Americans, then to transfer that work overseas.

"The L-1 program was not intended to function in this way," said Costa and Hira in the letter. "Nevertheless, this blatant misuse of the program is legally permissible. As a result, the program is operating at the expense of American workers.

"Any guidance you issue that broadens the L-1B specialized knowledge definition will help facilitate the offshoring process and directly lead to the loss of good jobs in the United States," they said.

In a letter

late last week to President Barack Obama, the U.S. and Indian IT firms complained that USCIS is exceeding its authority and rejecting too many visa applications under its interpretation of specialized knowledge.

The IT firms contended that it has become "increasingly difficult for companies to procure visas to transfer their existing employees to the United States to continue work on products, services, and projects."

The definition of specialized knowledge is being used in "an inconsistent and improperly narrowed definition," said these firms, in their letter to Obama.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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