New GOP H-1B bill appears to fall short of Trump’s goal

Rep. Issa tries again to tighten an H-1B loophole used to displace U.S. workers

H-1B visa collage

In the first week of the new Congress, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is attempting to win support for a controversial H-1B reform bill.

The bill, introduced Wednesday, is called the "Protect and Grow American Jobs Act" (HR 170) and co-sponsored by Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.). It is aimed at tightening, but not closing, a loophole in the visa law that has benefitted large H-1B-using firms.

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Issa introduced this bipartisan bill last July. It faced some criticism and stalled in committee. The big difference this year is the impending inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump has made clear that he wants to reform the H-1B program and appears open to legislation that accomplishes that goal.

But the reform measure pitched again by Issa may not go far enough for Trump based on ideas he outlined in the 2016 campaign.

Issa's legislation, which he said is in response to IT worker displacements at Southern California Edison and Disney, focuses on an 18-year-old loophole in the law.

In 1998, Congress adopted legislation approving a visa cap increase that also prohibited firms from displacing U.S. workers if they employed 15% or more visa workers.

The law also required a "good faith" effort by companies to first hire a U.S. worker. But in that same bill, lawmakers torpedoed these protections. U.S. workers can be displaced by a visa-holding employee who has a master's degree or is paid at least $60,000.

Issa's bill raises the salary threshold to $100,000 a year and includes a provision for inflation adjustments. It eliminates the master's degree exemption altogether.

In a statement, Issa said that the government needs "to make sure programs are not abused to allow companies to outsource and hire cheap foreign labor from abroad to replace American workers."

Even so, Issa's bill is not broad H-1B reform, something Trump seems interested in seeking.

The president-elect has indicated support for raising H-1B visa salaries across the board by changing the prevailing wages. The prevailing wage sets four levels for each occupation. Most H-1B workers are paid either level 1, beginner, or level 2 wages. The level 3 prevailing wage represents the 50th percentile or the median.

Trump didn't specifically say he wanted to set Level 3 as the threshold, but his proposal, later removed from his campaign website, pointed to an across-the-board increase for all visa workers.

Trump seemed to reaffirm his position for broad H-1B reform in October during a rally aimed at millennial-age voters.

Said Trump: "Companies are importing low-wage workers on H-1B visas to take jobs from young college-trained Americans. You've been seeing that and you've been hearing that. We will protect these jobs for all Americans, believe me."

Issa's bill still makes it possible for H-1B visa using firms to replace U.S. workers -- provided they pay a wage that meets the $100,000 threshold.

Issa "should be proposing that all firms recruit American workers before hiring an H-1B, and promise not to displace Americans with H-1Bs," said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University.

"The bill only touches a small subset of H-1B employers abusing the system," said Hira. "The vast majority of employers that hire H-1B workers to replace Americans will continue to do so."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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