New H-1B bill will 'help destroy' U.S. tech workforce

Measure could accelerate offshoring of U.S. jobs, critics argue

outsourcing blue glow

New legislation being pushed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to hike the H-1B visa cap is drawing criticism and warnings that it will lead to an increase in offshoring of tech jobs.

IEEE-USA said the legislation, introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday, will "help destroy" the U.S. tech workforce with guest workers.

Other critics, including Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at Howard University and a leading researcher on the issue, said the bill gives the tech industry "a huge increase in the supply of lower-cost foreign guest workers so they can undercut and replace American workers."

Hira said this bill "will result in an exponential rise of American jobs being shipped overseas."

Technically, the bill is a reintroduction of the earlier "I-Square" bill, but it includes enough revisions to be considered new. It increases the H-1B visa cap to 195,000 (instead of an earlier 300,000 cap), and eliminates the cap on people who earn an advanced degree in a STEM (science, technology, education and math) field.

Hatch, who is the No. 2 ranking senator in the GOP-controlled chamber, was joined by co-sponsors Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in backing the legislation.

The bill also makes it easier for U.S. advanced degree graduates to get a green card. One problem may be whether this bill will restrict, in any way, visa mills from churning out STEM master's degree holders for either green cards or H-1B visas.

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), said the bill doesn't include reforms such as higher prevailing wages and requirements to recruit U.S. workers. Nor does the bill limit the use of the H-1B visa by offshore outsourcing firms, he said.

"This bill is basically a wish list for the tech industry," said Costa.

The number of H-1B visas today is capped at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 allowed for advanced degree holders in STEM fields. The number of H-1B visas issued is actually higher, when groups exempt from the cap such as non-profits and research institutions, are added.

EPI estimates that between 2007 and 2012 nearly 776,000 H-1B visas were issued -- an average of almost 130,000 per year.

Hatch has made an H-1B increase a priority issue for the new Senate. Previous efforts to pass stand-alone bills to hike the cap were blocked by supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, who didn't want to dilute support for a broader bill. But Republican leaders in both chambers are much more open to the idea of a stand-alone high-skill immigration bill.

The bill's backers include senators from states that have seen workers displaced by offshore outsourcing firms. In Connecticut, Blumenthal's state, IT workers at Northeast Utilities were laid off last year after the company brought in H-1B visa workers by two India-based offshore firms. In Minnesota, represented by Klobuchar, Cargill, a food and agricultural firm, last year announced cuts in the IT department in an offshoring move.

But this law, or the announcement about it, makes no mention of the H-1B's use as a job outsourcing vehicle. "This bill is a common sense approach to ensuring that those who have come here to be educated in high-tech fields have the ability to stay here with their families and contribute to the economy and our society," Hatch said in a statement.

Costa said his main problem with the I-squared bill is that it doesn't propose any wage or recruitment reforms that the H-1B program needs. Even the prior Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, which failed to get a vote in the House of Representatives, "at least pushed things in the right direction by slightly raising the prevailing wage level, having an H-1B job database, and phasing in the 50/50 rule." That rule limits a firm's use of H-1B workers to 50% of its workforce.

The IEEE-USA has favored green card immigration over an expansion of the H-1B program.

"There are simply no arguments for H-1B increases that aren't better made for green cards," said Russ Harrison, IEEE-USA government relations director, in a statement. "The primary, practical function of the H-1B program is to outsource American high-tech jobs. Do the bill's supporters really think that's the direction American immigration policy should go?"

The IEEE estimates that bill will actually increase the H-1B use to about 300,000. It includes non-profits, and believes as many as 50,000 H-1B users will be advanced degree holders.

An H-1B visa is good for six years, the IEEE estimates (assuming all the visas are used) that it represents at least an additional 1.8 million employees competing for jobs in a U.S. STEM workforce of about 5 million.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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