At a news conference by the Technology Policy Institute (TPI) last week, which was organized to build support for increasing high-skilled immigration to the United States, a key congressional backer of increased immigration for highly skilled workers put a damper on the audience’s expectations.
American companies can now hire up to 65,000 foreign workers with H-1B visas. Another 20,000 H-1B visas are set aside for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees. Supporters think these limits need to be revised upwards, while critics blame the H-1B program for low wages in high-tech jobs, among other sins.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who represents Silicon Valley, gave the keynote speech at the 10 March 2009 meeting and immediately dampened hopes for lifting the caps on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers. Lofgren said she shares the opinion that increasing the numbers of immigrants with advanced degrees in engineering and science has benefits for the United States. “Anybody who wants to build our economy and grow our jobs,” Lofgren said, “has to deal with the issue of how … we attract and retain the Ph.D.s who are graduating from American universities, who are not residents and not U.S. citizens.” Non-citizens, she noted, make up 42% of the masters degree candidates and 64% of the Ph.D. candidates in engineering at U.S. universities. The numbers are similar–39% for masters and 61% for Ph.D. students–in computer science. Of all science and engineering doctorates granted in the past 2 years by U.S. institutions, she noted, 43% were not citizens.
Lofgren added, however, that congressional action to raise the limits on H-1B visas would have to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, because other industries — she cited Western farmers and Chesapeake Bay fisherman as examples — also have expressed a need for increasing the numbers of temporary immigrant workers. Measures that single out high-tech immigrants for immediate action, she suggested, would not attract the needed support.
But the prospects for such a comprehensive immigration bill are slim, she continued: One such bill failed to pass in the last Congress, she pointed out, and there seems to be little appetite now to revisit the issue.
An alternative proposed and favored by Lofgren over lifting H-1B caps is to award permanent resident (green card) immigration status to science and engineering masters and Ph.D. graduates with job offers. She introduced this measure in a bill during the last Congress, but it stalled in the contentious immigration debate in the last Congress. She noted that Barack Obama, while a candidate for president in 2008, committed to comprehensive immigration reform, which he hoped to accomplish in his first term. “To do a bill of this nature will take some presidential leadership,” Lofgren added.
Lofgren’s speech to TPI came less than two weeks after government data showed the top four recipients of H-1B visas were Indian outsourcing companies. Infosys Technologies, Wipro, Satyam, and Tata received some 10,700 H-1B visas in fiscal year 2008 that ended on 30 September, about 1 out of every 6 visas granted. The closest American company, Microsoft, received just over 1,000 visas. Household names like Google, Oracle, Yahoo, and IBM each had 200 visas or less.
The H-1B program has also been plagued by recent allegations of fraud. Earlier in February, the Justice Department arrested 13 people in 7 states for allegedly submitting false statements and documents in their H-1B visa petitions. The U.S. attorney for the southern district of Iowa indicted the IT services company Vision Systems Group of New Jersey (but with a branch in Iowa) with 10 counts of conspiracy and mail fraud. Among the charges are claims that workers with H-1B visas were documented as working in lower-wage Iowa (and paid accordingly), while actually placed in higher-wage locations on the east and west coasts. Beryl Benderly, in her January 2009 article for Science Careers noted the large number of Indian outsourcing companies using H-1B visas and the widespread fraud in the program.
With that backdrop, TPI released a study at the news conference purporting to show the favorable impact on the U.S. budget that high-skilled immigrants provide. The findings estimated that labor earnings would increase up to $86 billion over 10 years if the caps were lifted on the number of H-1B visas. The study, however, did not take into account costs to the federal budget of displaced U.S. workers caused by the large number of workers on H-1B visas trained by outsourcing companies. Arlene Holen, the study’s author, said that outsourcing may provide other benefits to the American economy, although she did not give specifics.