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IT workers' voices heard in the Senate, confidentially

Patrick Thibodeau | March 18, 2015
WASHINGTON - A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today on the H-1B visa offered up a stew of policy arguments, positioning and frustration.

WASHINGTON - A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today on the H-1B visa offered up a stew of policy arguments, positioning and frustration.

Much of the frustration focused on the IT layoffs at Southern California Edison, which is cutting 500 IT workers after hiring two offshore outsourcing firms. This has become the latest example for critics of the visa program's capacity for abuse.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chair who has long sought H-1B reforms, said he invited Southern California Edison officials "to join us today" and testify. "I thought they would want to defend their actions and explain why U.S. workers have been left high and dry," said Grassley. "Unfortunately, they declined my invitation."

The hearing, by the people picked to testify, was weighted toward critics of the program, prompting a response by industry groups.

Compete America, the Consumer Electronics Association, FWD.us, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many others submitted a letter to the committee to rebut the "flawed studies" and "non-representative anecdotes used to create myths that suggest immigration harms American and American workers."

The claim that H-1B critics are using "anecdotes" to make their points (which include layoff reports at firms such as Edison) is a naked example of the pot calling the kettle black. The industry musters anecdotal stories in support of its positions readily and often. It makes available to the press and congressional committees people who came to the U.S. on an H-1B visa who started a business or took on a critical role in a start-up. These people are free to share their often compelling and admirable stories.

The voices of the displaced, who may be in fear of losing their homes, are thwarted by severance agreements.

The committee did hear from displaced workers, including some at Southern California Edison. But the communications with these workers are being kept confidential.

"I got the letters here from people, without the names," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "If they say what they know and think about this, they will lose the buy-outs."

Infosys whistleblower Jay Palmer, who testified, and is familiar with the displacement process, told Sessions said these workers will get sued if they speak out. "That's the fear and intimidation that these people go through - they're blindsided," said Palmer.

Moreover, if IT workers refuse to train their foreign replacement, "they are going to be terminated with cause, which means they won't even get their unemployment insurance," said Ron Hira, an associate professor at Howard University, who also testified. Affected tech workers who speak out publicly and use their names, "will be blackballed from the industry," he said.

While lawmakers voiced either strong support or criticism of the program, there was interest in crafting legislation that impose some restrictions on H-1B use.

 

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