The H-1B visa program has been among the most debated immigration issues, especially as the high technology industry pressures immigration officials for a higher number to be made available while those who oppose such an increase call for tighter controls on their distribution. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives had a sub-committee hearing in order to hear both sides of the argument with the intent of reaching an agreement for dealing with the issue. Because outsourcing has become a stark reality that has taken many job opportunities overseas, some fear that increasing the limit of H-1B visas would lead to fewer job opportunities for Americans in the United States as the positions are filled by foreign workers. However, those on the other side of the argument point out that the high tech employers are under a lot of pressure because of the constraints generated by the short supply of qualified labor, saying that they need to look for potential employees abroad if they want to get the job done.
The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows specialized professionals to work in the U.S. for a specific amount of time as long as certain criteria for wages and qualifications are met. While the petition for this type of visa must be submitted by the employer or company, not the employee, the issuance of an H-1B visa is contingent upon the availability of candidates who are U.S. citizens or residents. In other words, this visa program specifically states that preference shall be given to Americans, and only if there are none who are qualified for a particular job will a foreign worker be lawfully permitted to fill the position. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who hosted the Congressional hearing, said: "the 65,000 base annual quota of H-1B visas is going to come under more and more pressure as the economy improves. If Congress doesn't act to increase the H-1B cap, then we may need to examine what sort of workers qualify for H-1B visas." While recognizing that the current limit does not meet the quantity demanded, he suggests that the selection criteria used to qualify individuals for the visa program may need to be reevaluated as well.
Ronil Hira, who is an associate professor of Public Policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, is an outspoken opponent of expanding the H-1B visas who claims that the answer to the supply problem lies in fixing the many flaws in the program. "To meet the needs of the U.S. economy and U.S. workers, the H-1B visa program needs immediate and substantial overhaul. Loopholes in the program have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in America." The flaws in the program, he claimed, "provide an unfair competitive advantage to companies" that outsource the high-wage, high-tech jobs overseas and benefit from it. Some of the key areas to improve the visa program include: requiring employers to show qualified American workers are unavailable before hiring foreign workers; monitoring H-1B wages to make sure they are at market levels; limiting H-1B visas to three years with no renewals; and preventing companies from having more than 15% of their employees on H-1B visas. In furtherance of his claim, he showed a chart of the top companies who used this visa program. Of these, Microsoft ranked fourth at 3,318 H-1B employees, while IBM and Intel were among the top ten at about 1,500 each.
The Congressional hearing also had individuals who proposed a variant of an immigration policy that would provide for an increase in the demanded labor force. Bruce Morrison, a former member of Congress who helped create the H-1B program, was one of those who provided a different view. As a representative of the IEEE-USA (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.), he called on Congress to pave the road for foreign students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines to get U.S. jobs and citizenship. In his testimony, he said, "there are no problems for which green cards are not a better solution than temporary visas." Morrison spoke of the shortcomings of the H-1B visa program that, because it is temporary in nature, does little to secure the permanence of the qualified employee pool. He asserted the importance of retaining foreigners who are currently working on their specialized graduate degrees in U.S. universities since they will be the future innovators in those fields, stressing that not offering them the opportunity to use their skills here will make them into U.S. competitors in the future. Morrison corroborated his point by affirming that taking this route for permanent immigration status would not only solve the problem faced by U.S. employers, but would also ensure that professionals would- from now on- not have to "continue to wait in endless lines for their dates to come up in the green card queue" as those who have the H-1B visas have so far been obligated to do. He also argued for lawmakers to eliminate the per-country limit on employment-based visas, recognizing that the biggest talent pools come from countries such as India and China. "Giving American employers enough green cards to hire new Americans means more jobs for Americans," he said.
While discerning the exact policy measure Congress members will chose to implement is uncertain; whether it involves increasing the H-1B visa limit, leaving it as is but setting stricter requirements to qualify, or giving foreign students in U.S. universities a citizenship option- the underlying common thread is the fact that this is an escalating problem that requires the immediate attention of our legislature. The United States holds a predominant position in the world as a leader in high technology, but it unfortunately also has a relatively short supply of professionals to meet the industry's demands. As such, apart from encouraging young Americans to pursue university degrees in related fields, the only immediate solution to fill the void must come from immigration.