Just last month, the U.S. manufacturing industry increased its employment even though a number of other growth indices decelerated. In its Semi-Annual Economic Forecast, the Institute of Supply Management reported that hiring skilled workers remains a challenge for the domestic manufacturing base. Yet a high-tech hiring program regulated by the U.S. government is raising the ire of organizations within the industry.
It’s not a new phenomenon. The H-1B visa program, which allows foreign citizens to work in the U.S. if they are sponsored by an employer, has always been a hot button. The program was developed so that high-tech companies that couldn’t fill certain jobs could hire foreign workers with a specific skill set. Depending on the economy, the program has either been embraced or denigrated over the years.
On Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) re-introduced his Immigration Innovation ("I-Squared") bill into the new Republican-led Congress. The I-Squared bill would increase the number of temporary H-1B visas from 130,000 to eventually as high as 300,000. The IEEE issued its criticism of the measure a few days later.
"This is a wrong turn," IEEE-USA Government Relations Director Russ Harrison said. "Last year's comprehensive immigration reform bill offered a much better option for Congress. The high-skill provisions it contained would create American jobs, strengthen the U.S. economy and enrich the American middle class."
More than half of current H-1B visas are used by outsourcing companies, including the top 10, the IEEE said in a release. These companies specialize in replacing Americans with cheaper foreign labor, thus eliminating U.S. high-skill, high-wage jobs, said the trade association. Sen. Hatch's bill empowers even more outsourcing.
"There are simply no arguments for H-1B increases that aren't better made for green cards," Harrison said. "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 said the number of visa holders could increase to more than a million because of various unnecessary and counterproductive proposed exemptions from the cap. Because H-1B visas last as long as six years, that represents at least an additional 1.8 million employees competing for jobs in a U.S. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workforce of about 5 million.
IEEE-USA supports expanding the employment-based green card program to make skilled immigrants Americans. The H-1B program does not do this.
"We need more green cards, not more guest workers," Harrison said.
During the tech boom of the late 1990s, tech associations lobbied Congress to increase the H-1B cap. There were not enough qualified U.S. workers to fill vital roles, the associations argued.
In 2013, U.S. employers reached the limit on annual visas --65,000--within a matter of days. The last time that happened was in 2008.
An immigration reform bill that was before the U.S. Senate in 2013 year sought to amend the H-1B program, closing loopholes in the application process. Critics of the program charged that workers are being hired for low-wage jobs and that many companies did not review their visa holders on a regular basis. The I-Squared bill could be the new direction Congress takes, following the failure of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, according to the IEEE.