Feds set to destroy H-1B records

Records that are critical to research and take up a microscopic amount of storage are set for deletion

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. has changed its H-1B record retention policy to the concern of people who study the visa's impact on the workforce and economy.

In a notice posted last week, the U.S. Department of Labor said that records used for labor certification, whether in paper or electronic, "are temporary records and subject to destruction" after five years, under a new policy.

There was no explanation for the change, and it is perplexing to researchers. The records under threat are called Labor Condition Applications (LCA), which identify the H-1B employer, worksite, the prevailing wage, and the wage paid to the worker.

"Throwing information away is anathema to the pursuit of knowledge and akin to willful stupidity or, worse, defacing Buddhist statues," said Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. "It undermines our ability to evaluate what the government does and, in today's world, retaining electronic records like the LCA is next to costless," he said.

The cost of storage can't be an issue for the government's $80 billion IT budget: A full year's worth of LCA data is less than 1GB.

The change in retention policy was approved last year by the National Archives and Records Administration, but this action appears to have escaped notice until the Labor Department posted a note (See Oct. 17 note titled "H-1B legacy records no long available.")

LCA records are used by people on all sides of the H-1B issue, and their research usually goes beyond five years. The H-1B visa itself is for six years, with one renewal after three years.

Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis and an H-1B visa researcher and critic, said he doesn't understand the government's action.

"Paper records, sure, but electronic?" Matloff said.

The fight over the H-1B visa is heated and a move by the Labor Department to limit record availability will suggest, to some, a conspiracy. Matloff, for one, says he would not rule out the idea that industry lobbyists, unhappy with some of the research, are behind the limit on records.

The Labor Department didn't respond to a Computerworld query about the change by deadline.

Neil Ruiz, a researcher on the visa issue at The Brookings Institution, said the move is "unfortunate, given that these are the only publicly available records for researchers to analyze on the demand by employers for H-1B visas with detail information on work locations."

John Miano, who founded the Programmers Guild and who, as a lawyer, challenged U.S. visa policies in court, also faulted the records plan.

"The problem we face when doing analyses of the H-1B program is a lack of data," Miano said. "The reality is we can only study where we have data," and if the range of data is restricted, it "severely restricts what can be studied."

The new record retention policy may add to the criticism the U.S. has already faced over its immigration record keeping. Researchers have faulted government records for being error filled, inconsistently available and difficult to work with.

"Getting good data on the H-1B, and other visa categories, is a serious issue for researchers," said Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute.

While the Labor Department's LCA data "has generally been good," getting more accurate data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS ) takes a Freedom of Information Act request, which is a lengthy and uncertain process, Costa said.

USCIS data isn't all that great once you get it, Costa said, "because USCIS is a national embarrassment in terms of its data collection, in part because it's a paper-based agency that's living in the stone ages."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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