THE INSTITUTEIEEE-USA appreciates IEEE Senior Member Qusi Alqarqaz’s post sharing his perspective on the H-1B visa program, published last month on The Institute online, and his acknowledgement that the program needs to be reformed. We also recognize that, for many IEEE members living outside the United States, the program represents their best chance of becoming American citizens. They, like Alqarqaz, see H-1B as a positive program because their experiences with it were positive. Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole story.
The legislation referenced in the post is H.R. 670: High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017, one of several H-1B reform bills introduced this year in the U.S. Congress that would curtail abuse of the program. The bill, and others like it, suggests raising wages for H-1B visa holders. That would make it more difficult for outsourcing agencies that place workers from overseas in U.S. companies to take advantage of loopholes in the current system.
Currently the standard wage for an H-1B worker is US $60,000, allowing such agencies to charge an employer, say, $80,000 to hire a developer for a project and in turn make a profit. By raising the wage to the bill’s suggested $135,000, the goal is to curb job outsourcing. Employers no longer would have the same incentive to hire non-U.S. workers if they had to pay them an equivalent, if not higher, salary. Regardless, IEEE-USA maintains that it is wrong to displace Americans at any wage rate.
WHO GETS HURT
The outsourcing companies that place H-1B workers pay them considerably less than U.S. workers in the same positions. Moreover, workers cannot petition for a green card on their own. Their employer, typically the outsourcing company, has to do it for them. And the companies almost never sponsor the workers for green cards, so it’s rare they become American citizens that way.
Alqarqaz’s post equates the H-1B visa with immigration, but that’s not the case. Visa holders are temporary guest workers. And although thousands of IEEE members have successfully received green cards while working in the country on an H-1B visa, it is not, in fact, a path to citizenship. At best, the visa is a waiting room for potential immigrants to sit in until a green card becomes available, if one does.
In many cases, in fact, H-1B visas are used as barriers to citizenship. Some companies, particularly outsourcing companies, use an H-1B visa specifically because it is not an immigration visa. Unlike green cards, the visa belongs to the company and not the worker. Workers can stay in the country exactly as long as their employers let them. But if the company chooses to take the visa back, the worker has to leave unless he can find another employer to sponsor his visa.
That dependency gives employers a tremendous amount of control over their workers—which in turn makes the workers easy to exploit. For some companies, that is the primary advantage of the visa. If a company decides that it doesn’t want a given worker to become a U.S. citizen, there isn’t really much the worker can do about it.
IN SUPPORT OF GREEN CARDS
Alqarqaz is correct to note how immensely valuable skilled immigrants are to our economy. Many are among the most productive, innovative, and entrepreneurial members of our society. But that is not an argument for more H-1B visas; it is an argument for more green cards.
H-1B workers rarely innovate, because they have no long-term stake in the company. And they rarely start businesses, because H-1B rules state that they can’t own a company in the United States. Green card holders often do both.
Alqarqaz successfully used an H-1B visa to live in America long enough to get a green card—which is wonderful. But the only reason an H-1B was necessary was that the United States doesn’t issue enough green cards every year. Employment-based immigration is limited to 140,000 people per year. We’re in favor of additional green cards to allow international students who are earning their master’s and Ph.D. degrees in the United States to get one within a year of graduating.
IEEE-USA is working with Congress to speed up access to green cards for skilled non-Americans so they can fully participate in growing our economy. IEEE-USA is lobbying to reform and restrict the H-1B program because work visas frequently get in the way of that goal. We believe most of the problems caused by H-1B visas can be fixed by issuing more green cards.
President Trump’s recent executive order to review and revamp the H-1B program is a step in the right direction. We look forward to working with the administration and Congress by reworking the visa lottery to end outsourcing, and to fix the prevailing wage to ensure all workers are paid what they’re worth.
America was built by immigrants, not temporary workers. The more we refocus our high-skill visa system on immigration and away from H-1Bs, the better.
This article was written by 2017 IEEE-USA President Karen Pederson, 2016 IEEE-USA President Pete Eckstein, and 2017 IEEE-USA President-Elect Candy Robinson.