Is the Tech Industry its Own Worst Enemy on Immigration Reform?

One of the enduring ideals of our nation is the concept of the American dream – the belief that anyone, regardless of social class and circumstances of birth, with little more than raw talent and a strong work ethic, can create a life of prosperity here. Immigrants historically have looked to the United States as a unique place to foster their respective skills, and, in turn, our nation has benefited immeasurably from their ingenuity. This mutually beneficial concept is one of the foundations of the H1B visa program, which was created in 1990 as a way for U.S. employers to temporarily place foreign workers in professional positions in order to alleviate skill gaps in the domestic marketplace. But now, more than 25 years later, immigration opponents use any example of a company’s abuse of the H1B visa system to attack immigration in its totality and further sway public opinion, damaging prospects for reform.

The potential for H1B abuse was thrust into the national spotlight, when an iconic American company announced, in October 2014, that it was laying off 250 IT employees. Soon after the layoffs were announced, the impacted employees were told that their positions were being filled by temporary workers on H1B visas – and that they would have to train their foreign national replacements in order to receive their severance packages. “I just couldn’t believe they could fly people in to sit at our desks and take over our jobs …” lamented one former employee in an interview with The New York Times. [See America’s Mixed Feelings About Immigrant Labor: Disney Layoff’s Edition, by Bourree Lam, The Atlantic, 18.Jun.2015. See also Pink Slips at Disney. But First, Training Foreign Replacements, by Julia Preston, The New York Times, 3.Jun.2015.]

Isolationists and anti-immigrant activists immediately leaped on this news story. Despite the wealth of academic research that proves how beneficial the H1B program is the U.S. economy – including to the average American worker – zealots have clung to the fiction that “immigrants are stealing our jobs!” So, when accounts of companies abusing the system are all the general public knows about H1Bs, the anecdotal news stories begin to be seen as undeniable truth. And, in politics, perception is reality. Not only does this type of conduct undermine any hopes for positive immigration reform, it actually serves to strengthen those in Washington who have long pushed to curb the employment-based immigration system.

Making the need for IT and other STEM workers even more dire, Congress is currently updating the controversial No Child Left Behind Law. The latest rewrite to pass in the U.S. House eliminates the majority of federal science education funding. If this trend continues, our reliance on the STEM skills possessed by so many foreign national workers will only increase, which will require an even more robust, fair, and transparent immigration system. [See Will STEM Education Be the Child Left Behind?, by Eric Westervelt, NPR, 28.Oct.2015.]

Further complicating matters is the annual cap on new H1B workers. Only 85,000 are allotted each year on a first-come, first-served basis. Sponsoring an H1B worker can be an expensive proposition – one that favors multi-billion-dollar corporations over startups that are working on a tight budget. Industry insiders have grown increasingly critical of massive consulting firms that flood the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with petitions in order to maximize their odds in the annual H1B lottery. Meanwhile, smaller businesses with legitimate needs for fresh talent too often are left wanting. Ronil Hara, a professor at Howard University who researches visa programs, explained in a recent interview with The New York Times that “… the H1B program is critical as a way for employers to fill skill gaps and for really talented people to come to the United States.” Hara goes on to say that these large companies are squeezing out legitimate users of the program. [See Large Companies Game H1B Program, Costing the U.S. Jobs, by Julia Preston, The New York Times, 10.Nov.2015.]

It was never the intent of the H1B program that a qualified U.S. worker could be replaced by a foreign national at a lower wage. Our existing immigration system, which contains elaborate labor-market protections, by and large, does not lead to this outcome. But, when a few bad actors abuse the system, critics present these examples as representative of everyone who hires H1B workers. The resentment created when misuse comes to light makes it increasingly difficult for those seeking a positive transformation of the immigration system. Abuses cloud the true picture of all that these foreign workers add to U.S. business, to the U.S. economy, and to our culture of diversity.


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