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The curse of the H1-B visa program

Karen M. Kroll | Dec. 30, 2011
The H1-B visa program, like most elements of America's immigration policy, generates plenty of criticism.

The H1-B visa program, like most elements of America's immigration policy, generates plenty of criticism. In congressional testimony this year Texas Instruments human resources senior vice president Darla Whitaker said the program "limits employer flexibility, and diminishes productivity," and the Government Accountability Office, Congress' own investigative arm, conceded that "as currently structured," H1-B visas "may not be used to its full potential, and may be detrimental in some cases."

Even more scathingly, Rochester Institute of Technology public-policy associate professor Ron Hira, claimed H1-B and other guest worker programs "have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in America."

And if the 21-year-old program --- which has produced more than a million petitions or visa extensions from fiscal 2006 to 2010 -- is sometimes berated by the companies who use it, and the experts who see its policy shortcomings, H1-B just as often is vilified for the frustrations it creates for the employees in the system.

So now, fixes are being proposed, for the H1-B and for the permanent resident "green-card" system in general, to make the system work better for the many companies that need to use nonimmigrant workers on a temporary basis, as well as for those workers themselves.

There's no doubt that H1-B non-immigrant classification could be extremely helpful to companies and beneficial to the workers, if managed properly. It's designed, after all, as a vehicle to let qualified aliens seek temporary admission here to work in his or her field of expertise. As the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explains it, H1-B allows employers to bring in foreign-born skilled workers for up to six years -- one three-year term, with one renewal -- to fill positions for which they are unable to find suitable domestic employees.

Often, those positions are technology-based, such as computer programmers, for whom there is a constant shortage in this country.

Lots to Fix

So, what all needs to be corrected?

For one thing, the permanent immigration system.

While the H1-B program may have served a useful purpose at one time, critics say it suffers from numerous structural flaws. For starters, their temporary nature limits the H1-B's usefulness to companies trying to attract top talent, says Patrick Wilson, director of government affairs with the Semiconductor Industry Association. "You don't go after top talent for a couple of years," Wilson says. "You want to make them a permanent part of the workforce. These are real game-changing players."

But the permanent immigration system has grown so mindbogglingly backlogged -- a highly skilled Indian national could wait up to 70 years to receive a green card, according to an October report by the National Foundation for American Policy, a public policy research group -- that the H1-B has become the method of choice among employers who really want permanent workers.

 

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