H-1B reform promises hang by a thread

The deadline for visa applications looms, but the Trump Administration has done nothing to fulfill campaign promises to end the ‘cheap labor program’

H-1B reform promises hang by a thread
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This year's deadline for H-1B applications is fast approaching, and without action to fix this boondoggle that is being exploited by outsourcers, thousands more American jobs will be lost. However, the H-1B reform possibilities that a few short weeks ago shone brightly are now dimming as the Trump Administration backpedals from earlier bombast.

“The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” presidential candidate Donald Trump said in a statement last spring. “I will end forever the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program.”

But there has been no action and few words from President Trump on the issue of H-1B since taking office. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says only that the matter is being reviewed as part of a larger overhaul of immigration policies.

Meanwhile, Republican Hindu Coalition President Shalabh Kumar—one of the top donors to Trump’s presidential campaign—is reassuring Indian businesses that the administration has no plans to come out with an executive order on H-1B visas. “There will be a need of more H-1B visas. The number of people on H-1B from India is certainly going to increase,” Kumar told reporters at a news conference in India.

Those reassurances were echoed yesterday by India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who told Indian IT professionals they had no reason to worry about H-1B visa reform. “Currently there are four bills in the U.S. Congress about curbs on H-1B visas. We are engaged [in a dialog] with the U.S. at a very high level regarding this... We are making all efforts [through diplomatic channels] to ensure these bills are not passed,” Swaraj said.

Some in Congress, like Republican Senator Thom Tillis, espouse the need for more H-1B visa workers. “We need [Indian] talent to come in and fill these [high-tech] jobs if we want to continue to be the leader in innovation and in research” because there aren't enough American STEM workers to meet demand, Tillis said last week at an event organized by the U.S.-India Friendship Council and U.S.-India Business Council. 

But many doubt the myth of a STEM worker shortage, and the idea that the H-1B program needs fixing has gained bipartisan support among others in Congress. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley took the president to task on Sunday. After a “60 Minutes” report that focused on American workers who’ve had to train their H-1B-holding replacements before losing their jobs, Grassley tweeted: “If u just saw CBS 60minutes abt ripoff H1B visa program is replacing AmWorkers u shld know my/Durbin bill will correct this injustice.” Grassley continued: "@POTUS In other words I've been waiting for six yrs for a president interested in fixing H1B and that person has finally arrived/DRAIN SWAMP."

The bill he referenced is one Grassley co-sponsored with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who over the years has repeatedly introduced legislation to fix the program. Durbin earlier this month sent a letter to President Trump:

I am disappointed that you have broken your campaign promise to take action on the first day of your Administration to reform foreign guest worker visas – especially the H-1B visa – to put American workers first.

The American people deserve an explanation for your decision not to pursue H-1B reforms on your first day in office.  Commentators have pointed out that companies you own have sought to import at least 1,000 foreign guest workers while turning away hundreds of qualified American workers.  I note with concern that in recent weeks one of your largest campaign donors has promised that you will not crack down on H-1B abuses and instead will seek to increase the number of H-1B visas granted each year.

If you do not take action in the next few weeks, outsourcers will secure the right to import tens of thousands of low-wage foreign guest workers to replace American workers.  This is in addition to hundreds of thousands of H-1B workers who are already employed by outsourcing companies in the United States.

Time is running short. The first week in April, 85,000 more H-1B visas become available. Most will not go to American tech companies; Indian outsourcers got nearly 70 percent of H-1B visas issued in fiscal year 2015, according to data collected by Ron Hira, Howard University professor of public policy, using FOIA requests. Tata alone received 5,650 H-1Bs in 2014, while Amazon—the largest recipient among U.S. tech companies—got 877. 

The question now: Will the president fulfill his campaign promise? His first two months in office, Trump signed 38 executive orders. What are the odds he’ll pull out that pen again and protect American jobs from being outsourced to cheap foreign labor?