Visas for Foreign Workers

By P.K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 29 2020
Columns Visas for Foreign Workers

By P.K. Balachandran

Last week, US President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order to halt, till 31 December this year, the issuance of work visas, including the H-1B visas for high-skilled workers, to prevent immigrant workers from coming to the US. According to The Wall Street Journal, the order is expected to affect 525,000 persons, including 170,000 Green-Card holders. However, the order will not affect workers already in the US with valid visas.

Justifying his step, Trump said: “American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work. Temporary workers are often accompanied by their spouses and children, many of whom also compete against American workers. Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programmes can provide benefits to the economy. But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain non-immigrant visa programmes authorising such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers.”

“For example, between February and April of 2020, more than 17 million United States jobs were lost in industries in which employers are seeking to fill worker positions tied to H-2B non-immigrant visas. During this same period, more than 20 million United States workers lost their jobs in key industries where employers are currently requesting H-1B and L workers to fill positions.”

“The entry of additional workers through the H-1B, H-2B, J, and L non-immigrant visa programmes, therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“Excess labour supply is particularly harmful to workers at the margin between employment and unemployment — those who are typically ‘last in’ during an economic expansion and ‘first out’ during an economic contraction. In recent years, these workers have been disproportionately represented by historically disadvantaged groups, including African Americans and other minorities, those without a college degree, and Americans with disabilities.”

“In the administration of our Nation’s immigration system, we must remain mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labour market, particularly in the current extraordinary environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labour.”

Electoral dimension

There was an electoral factor working in Trump’s mind, which partly explains the timing of the order. Trump is seeking a second term in the November Elections, and in the run-up to it, he has to cover up his incompetence in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which till 25 June, had infected 2.59 million and killed 120,171 in the US. Over 20 million Americans had been thrown out of jobs because of lockdown and closures of economic enterprises. Trump also has to take into account the fact that African-Americans and other racial minorities have been the worst affected by the pandemic. The Blacks have also been badly alienated because of the brutal public murder of Black man, George Floyd, by a White Police Officer. It had touched off unprecedented rioting across the US. That the Presidential Election was the trigger for the Executive Order is clear also from the fact that it is to be in place only till 31 December.

But, irrespective of the electoral factor, the unemployment situation is alarming. According to a PEW Research Center analysis, the COVID-19 outbreak and the economic downturn it engendered swelled the ranks of unemployed Americans by more than 14 million, from 6.2 million in February to 20.5 million in May 2020. As a result, the US unemployment rate shot up from 3.8 per cent in February to 13 per cent in May. The Blacks are the worst hit now, as before. The Black unemployment rate is currently 16.7 per cent, compared with the White unemployment rate of 14.2 per cent. 

In 2019, the share of the US civilian labour force that was foreign-born was 17.4 per cent. Adding to this problem are the undocumented foreign workers, numbering about 11 million.

H-1B visas

Of the work visas, the H-1B remains the most popular among Indian IT companies. The US has a cap of 85,000 on H-1B visas for each year. Of this, 65,000 H-1B visas are issued to highly skilled foreign workers, while the rest 20,000 can be additionally allotted to highly skilled foreign workers who have a higher education or a Master’s Degree from an American university. 

Indian IT companies are amongst the biggest beneficiaries of the H-1B visa regime. As of 1 April 2020, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had received about 2.5 lakh H-1B work visa applications. Indians had applied for as many as 1.84 lakh or 67 per cent of them. As per Trump’s order, H-1B visas will no longer be decided by the currently prevalent lottery system, but by a tougher process. 

Misuse of H1-B visas

Many American experts complain that the H-1B visa facility is misused. Ron Hira, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology, had said that a large portion of the “specialty” workers hired under H-1B visas are not “special” at all. In 2008, the Department of Labor (DOL) certified more than 5,000 applications for H-1B positions which pay less than US$ 15 an hour. In 2008, Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, found evidence of forged documents, fake degrees and other improprieties in one out of every five petitions for H-1B visas. In one instance, the H-1B position described by the employer as "business development analyst" turned out to be for a washing machine repair and maintenance man. 

Many of the companies most reliant on H-1Bs are India-based outsourcers. Indian-owned companies collectively accounted for 12 per cent of all new H-1B hires. Several large Indian-owned companies, including Infosys Technologies Ltd. and Wipro Ltd., hire thousands for their US operations, unlike US-based companies.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., charged in 2007 that the "primary mission" of Indian outsourcing companies "is to gain the expertise necessary to take on critical tasks performed by companies in the United States and perform them in India at a fraction of the cost." 

Contribution of foreign workers

However, it is undeniable that foreign workers significantly contribute to the growth of the US economy. Three-quarters of the H-1B visas each year go to people working in the technology industry. Many tech giants cite the vital contributions immigrants make to their companies and the US as a whole.

"Now is not the time to cut our Nation off from the world's talent or create uncertainty and anxiety," Brad Smith, Microsoft chief counsel, tweeted. "Preventing high-skilled professionals from entering the country and contributing to America's economic recovery puts America's global competitiveness at risk," an Amazon spokesman said. 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, himself an Indian immigrant, says that immigration helped build the company and the US. "Immigration has contributed immensely to America's economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today," Pichai said in a tweet. 

Among US tech and engineering companies launched from 1995 to 2005, in more than 25 per cent there is at least one foreign-born founder, according to Duke University Professor Vivek Wadhwa. In 2005 alone, these immigrant-founded companies produced US$ 52 billion in sales and employed nearly half a million workers. In 2006, more than 24 per cent of international patent applications filed from the US named foreigners as inventors or co-inventors.

The Harris Poll, surveying more than 400 hiring professional managers across industries, indicated that the demand for foreign talent to fill the skills gap, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) areas, persists. Trump cannot wish this away, and COVID-19 is not going to be here forever.

By P.K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 29 2020

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