H-1B Visas: Why We Need Facts Before Reform

by Phil Stott | March 20, 2017

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Immigration has been dominating much of the conversation since the Trump administration officially got underway a few short weeks ago—with most of the oxygen around the issue being sucked up by the arguments raging over the President's executive orders on border security.

Last night, however, CBS' 60 Minutes devoted a quarter of its show to a more arcane, less well-understood facet of the immigration debate: the issue of H-1B visas.

It's a curious segment: while it focuses a great deal of time and attention on stories of workers who were asked to train the foreign workers who would be coming in on H-1B visas to replace them—a situation that seems, as then-candidate Donald Trump is shown noting in the clip, to be "demeaning"—it fails to offer any analysis of the scale of the visa program, or to put the numbers into context. Instead, after viewing it, the audience is left with little but the impression that anyone in a remotely tech-centered position faces the imminent threat of losing their job to a foreign employee (most likely from India) who will do it for half the pay and no benefits.

While there's no doubt that the H-1B program is open to some abuse, it doesn't seem to be quite the threat to U.S. workers that the show makes out: by law, just 85,000 H-1B visas are issued in any given year (20,000 of those are reserved for Master's degree holders); and any H-1B holder can stay for a maximum of 6 years. As anyone with a calculator can tell you, that's a maximum of 510,000 of high-skilled, non-US employees in any 6-year period—with 120,000 of those holding a minimum of a Master's degree. By contrast, the U.S. tech industry has some 6.7 million employees, and added around 200,000 positions between 2015 and 2016. Oh, and it's facing a well-documented skills shortage.

There are, of course, loopholes and exceptions by which individuals and companies can extend the duration of visas or shift their employment status—there's a decent roundup of that here. But, oddly, it's not these loopholes that the 60 Minutes segment chose to focus on. Rather, it highlighted a provision in the original law—one that was added by Congress as a sop to lobbyists, according to a source in the piece—that removes a requirement that companies must first look for an American candidate if the position pays more than $60,000.

To be sure, that's an absurdly low salary in the US tech sector, and there seems to be little doubt that some outsourcing companies are using the loophole to replace high-earning US employees with lower-cost foreign competitors. But it's an issue that has an incredibly easy fix: simply raise the salary requirement, which doesn't appear to have been touched since the law was initially passed in 1990.

But, like much of the rest of the 60 Minutes piece, there's no sense of the scale of that specific problem relative to the H-1B-holding population. For example, in a recent piece on visa reform, CNN cited research that "looked at 500 job offers from tech companies like Google, Twitter and Stripe [and] found that for immigrants with zero to ten years of experience, the average salary is 10% greater than that of U.S. residents. Only after ten years does that decline."

It’s impossible to watch the entire segment and not come away feeling sorry for the employees that it profiles—losing a job is never an easy thing to stomach, and losing one under those circumstances would be especially infuriating. But in focusing solely on those displaced, and failing to provide a look at the other side of the coin, 60 Minutes has undermined the visa program as a whole. And that's a problem—not just for companies that rely on those employees to fill the talent shortage they're facing, but for the visa holders themselves, whose activities help to create and sustain the companies they work for, and help to create thousands of additional jobs all across the country.

While the segment takes pains to lay the blame it apportions at the feet of the corporations who take advantage of the opportunity to hire H-1B holders, the notion that "these people are taking our jobs"—complete with US flags being removed from an office as workers are let go—runs through the entire piece. At a time when foreign workers are already vulnerable to heightened tensions (with members of the Indian community in particular having suffered violent attacks in recent weeks), that lack of balance risks further inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment.

The H-1B visa may well require overhaul, but before we arrive at a place where we can do that, we need to have a full accounting of the issues involved—both positive and negative. Unfortunately, by focusing on the issue solely from the perspective of a group of aggrieved, displaced workers, this 60 Minutes segment came nowhere close to offering that.

Filed Under: Consulting | CSR | Education | Job Search | Technology | Workplace Issues

Tags: H-1B visa | outsourcing | video

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