For the last several decades it was said that America was addicted to foreign oil. We rarely hear that talk these days, thanks in large part to increased domestic production. Similarly, corporate America has become addicted to foreign labor by way of government-authored guest worker programs. The time is long overdue to debunk some myths on this subject and break the addiction.
One of the most popular guest worker programs, the H-1B visa, has been in the news lately. North Carolina State Senator Phil Berger has proposed that companies should not be allowed to count H-1B visa workers toward jobs that earn the companies money from one of the state’s jobs development program. Major corporations have relied on such grants since locating their facilities to the state. A debate has since ensued as to whether H-1B visas are good for the state and the country at large.
H-1B visa workers are indeed good for North Carolina and America, if you rely on a series of claims made by the corporations and other entities that benefit from them. A closer look reveals something else.
While some guest workers are paid slightly above the standard pay for certain jobs, there are numerous examples of cases where these workers are paid far less. One of the instincts of business owners and managers is to keep labor costs as low as possible. There is nothing inherently sinister about that; it is often borne from legitimate fiscal responsibility. However, the H-1B visa program can be used as an opportunity by unscrupulous employers to drastically reduce their overhead with a labor force that is ripe for exploitation.
Another frequent complaint of the visa program is that a small number of dominant IT outsourcing companies get a disproportionately high number of H-1B visas and pay below-average wages to its workers. So not only are some foreign workers being exploited through the program, it allows a handful of industry giants to squeeze out their competitors through access to cheap labor. There is also voluminous research that confirms the exploitation of foreign workers in the program.
One of the loudest claims in defense of H-1B visas is that there is a desperate need for foreign workers to fill positions that cannot be filled with American workers. While it’s true that our nation should be producing far more graduates with tech skills, the claim bears more scrutiny. Nearly half of all of the approved visa petitions are for persons with undergraduate degrees rather than advanced degrees, and nearly half of the foreign workers that they seek visas for have no more than an undergraduate degree. There are more than five million native-born Americans with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) undergraduate degrees working in non-STEM occupations: 1.5 million with engineering degrees, half a million with technology degrees, 400,000 with math degrees, and 2.6 million with science degrees.
It appears that there is a sizeable number of Americans with STEM degrees, but many have pursued other fields. Why? Perhaps the knowledge that IT employers favor guest workers who will work for less is a reason.
Employers have long sought to debunk the notion that they favor guest workers to displace their American counterparts. It is worth noting that there is no requirement in the H-1B visa program that employers have to hire available U.S. workers first. Add to that the growing list of lawsuits filed by U.S. workers alleging that they were instructed to train guest workers who later replaced them, and it is not hard to see how U.S. workers with STEM degrees may want to go in another direction in their careers.
While American workers may feel squeezed out by the H-1B visa program, the recipients of the visas themselves have been victims of more than just wage exploitation. The Immigration Reform Law Institute successfully assisted a young African graduate in his fight to compel an unscrupulous employer to make amends for flagrantly abusing the H-1B visa program. The details of the case included the filing of fraudulent visa applications by the employer, demanding the worker pay visa fees—prohibited in the program regulations—and “benching” the worker without pay and keeping him in a condition close to indentured servitude. Such employers should not be rewarded with state grants.
To address this situation, President Trump last year signed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order. While designed to protect American workers, the order largely consists of reports on the issue that will not result in imminent changes. Efforts to reform the H-1B visa program have been proposed in Congress, but the body has not shown the political appetite to tackle an issue that undoubtedly impacts many of its well-heeled corporate constituents.
Congressional reform of the program would certainly help, but the overall solution will take many forms. They would include incentivizing American students to pursue STEM fields, making those students more attractive to employers, and encouraging more educational institutions to offer relevant degree programs.
We beat our addiction to foreign oil by creating our own supply at home. Doubling down on our dependence on foreign labor through grants and other incentives will only serve to prolong our dependence.
Brian Lonergan is director of communications at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of mass migration.
Also published at: Brian Lonergan, H-1B Visas Are Bad for America, The Daily Caller, June 15, 2018