A “Genius VISA” - Does America Need to Import Talent?

The H-1B’s Promise and Pitfalls

Photo courtesy of www.naovisa.com

Created by Congress in 1990, the H-1B visa program was designed to help U.S. employers hire temporary, foreign workers in specialty occupations. The program is now associated with a phenomenon, known as “off-shoring”, potentially highlighting an unintended consequence of the H-1B’s success. Historically, foreign students and workers have fulfilled elite academic and professional roles afforded to them through this visa program. During 2012, the top ten H-1B employers were staffing companies, granting 40,170 of the 85,000 visas allowed. In observing these ten employers, it was reported that preferential treatment was extended to foreign applicants, deliberately purging U.S. workers to replace them with cheaper foreign staff. H-1B rules prohibit this conduct, yet it occurs. Mechanisms currently designed to prevent replacement of domestic workers with cheaper H-1B visa holders may not be adequate, leading to perceptions of abuse of the H-1B program and calls for its end. Fueling this are documented incidents of American workers being laid off and replaced with H-1B visa holders working for significantly reduced salaries. Because of this, the AFL-CIO recommended federal legislation making it unlawful for a domestic employer to replace a U.S. worker with an H-1B guest worker under any circumstances. This recommendation is in response to the criticism that American workers frequently face the humiliation of having to train new foreign H-1B workers who, through lay-offs, will replace them at cheaper wages. This is “off-shoring”; whereby foreign workers replace domestic workers at cheaper costs. The AFL-CIO proposal would codify Department of Labor protocol, which is designed to ensure that H-1B workers don’t displace current domestic employees or adversely affect wages.

Top recruiters of H-1B visa holders are not Google or Facebook; instead, they are outsourcing companies, mostly hiring low and mid-level tech workers for corporate clients. This trend may represent an evolution of the program whereby its provisions are being exploited in ways that are not in keeping with the original purpose, revealing an unintended consequence of its creation.

The original H-1B purpose was to help American educational institutions and employers recruit well-qualified students and workers to fill critical roles in their organizations. The H-1B visa allows these organizations access to greater talent by broadening the pool of applicants to include those from other countries who are not U.S. citizens. Yearly, beginning in April, 85,000 foreigners may be sponsored by U.S. companies for H-1B visas. 65,000 must already possess a bachelor’s degree and the remaining 20,000 are reserved for foreign nationals who possess advanced degrees from U.S. universities. The employing companies sponsor the visas by paying the petition costs and other fees incurred by the applicants. Requests from companies to use the H-1B program extend well beyond the 65,000-visa limit, prompting heightened advocacy for an increase in the caps to help staff those domestic sectors in greatest need.

H-1B visa program value may also be evaluated by considering an example of the recruitment of exceptional personnel having implications for Homeland Security. Consider the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It’s mission is to “identify current or future advances that have the potential to bend today’s security trajectories — advances that, years from now, could disrupt the stability the Nation enjoys today as well as advances that, over the same period, could enhance national and global security”. According to DARPA, it “has involved overcoming seemingly insurmountable physics and engineering barriers and, once showing those daunting problems to be tractable after all, applying new capabilities made possible by these breakthroughs directly to national security needs.” Today, these efforts include: application of deep mathematics; inventing new chemistries, processes and materials; harnessing quantum physics. DARPA managers are among the top of their fields, coming from academia, industry, and government, and striving to push the limits of their disciplines. Such people come from U.S. scientific institutions and industry, which vigorously pursue staff through the H-1B visa program.

2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge courtesy of makezine.com

Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and author, teaches at the City College of New York. Speaking November 8–10, 2011 at a Sapphire Now/TedEd conference in Madrid, Spain, Dr. Kaku stated: “The information revolution has a weakness; and the weakness is precisely the educational system. The United States has the worst educational system known to science. Our graduates regularly compete at the level of third world countries.” Dr. Kaku went on to ponder how the U.S scientific community may survive. Answering his own question, he stated: “America has a secret weapon. That secret weapon is the H-1B. Without the H-1B, the scientific establishment in this country would collapse. Forget about Google. Forget about Silicon Valley. There would be no Silicon Valley without the H-1B.

Dr. Michio Kaku courtesy of ofuturodascoisas.com

Dr. Kaku described the H-1B as the “genius visa” and noted that in the U.S., 50% of all PhD candidates are foreign born, adding that at his institution, 100% of the PhD candidates are foreign born. Dr. Kaku then asserted that removal of the H-1B visa would collapse the economy. Immigrants comprise nearly half of all doctorate level scientists and engineers in the U.S. Further, the number of inventions, as measured by patents, has increased when H-1B caps (numbers of such visas granted) are higher. These inventions are directly attributed to the contributions of immigrant inventors. Vindicating Dr. Kaku’s assertions, the American public and scientific communities regard U.S. standards for math and science education as deficient; these conclusions being confirmed by standardized tests. Compared to 64 other countries in 2012, the U.S. ranked 35th in math and 27th in science.

Abuses and benefits of the H-1B visa program have been noted. It has been claimed by Bill Gates that for every H-1B visa holder hired by Microsoft, four additional employees are also hired to support the H-1B worker. Therefore, identifying the values of the H-1B program and expanding it to reflect modern needs seems valuable. Likewise, legislation controlling exploitation of the program’s rules is necessary to prevent “off-shoring” to preserve the usefulness of this program.

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