H-1B reform proposals would give priority to guest workers educated in the U.S.
You might not know the term H-1B but the computer and smartphone you use were likely designed, at least in part, by someone in the United States who holds one of these work visas.
The H-1B visa is for guest foreign workers with at least a bachelor’s degree in a field relevant to the job they’re seeking in the United States. Architects, college professors, and even fashion models are eligible but most H-1B workers are from the tech sector.
Employers are waiting to see what changes are coming for H-1B under the Trump administration. Lots of people across America– including some Trump advisors, lawmakers in Congress and executives in the tech world–are either unhappy with how the program currently works–or worried about its future.
A startup tech boom in recent years increased demand for skilled foreign workers, and the companies that rely on a steady stream of those employees are alarmed by calls to reduce the number of visas granted each year. Meanwhile critics of the program say H-1B has been used to box out American workers.
Pradeep Bhadrachalam came to the U.S. nine years ago to earn his Ph.D. in nanotechnology at the University of Texas at Arlington.
As Bhadrachalam walks through his local Costco store in Fremont, California, he remembers when he first visited one of America’s quintessential buy-in-bulk stores.
“It was very weird to see such a really big wholesale thing,” he said.
Since then, he’s adjusted well to the American lifestyle.
He has three dogs, rides a motorcycle, drives an SUV and buys massive packs of organic chicken legs—which he shares with his dogs, not his girlfriend.
“My girlfriend is vegetarian. She doesn’t eat meat at all,” he said laughing.
Not everyone can afford to feed their dogs organic chicken, but Bhadrachalam is a process engineer at Lam Research Corporation, where he earns more than $100,000 a year designing tools used to make semiconductors, key components of electrical circuits.
“My plan was just to do masters and go back. I wasn’t planning on staying here or look–even working here,” he said. “But then after graduation, I was just looking around for jobs to get some work experience. And that’s when I came across this job.”
But after almost a decade in the U.S.–first in school, then on the job– Bhadrachalam isn’t pursuing permanent residency. But the H-1B visa gives him a few years to decide. It’s good for three years, can be renewed for another three, and sometimes even longer.
Giovanni Peri, professor of economics at the University of California at Davis says about 85 percent of new H-1B visas go to highly skilled technology employees such as programmers, analysts, and electrical engineers.
Originally from Italy, Peri used to be in the U.S. on an H-1B, before he married an American. His research found that foreign workers here on H-1Bs not only helped their American employers profit, their presence also helps create more jobs within that company.
“We need these workers and we will continue to need them. If they were to go away, we would just have a slowdown in the growth of that sector,” Peri said.
H-1B holders also shop for food and clothing and that generates more jobs and tax dollars. Still the program has plenty of critics, who feel that the jobs that go to foreign-born workers could be given to American citizens instead.
Disney, one of the most iconic American companies, got blowback when the entertainment giant laid off hundreds of tech employees and replaced them with foreign workers. In their last weeks on the job, the Americans were asked to train their own H-1B replacements. One federal judge said Disney did not violate the law, but there are legal actions pending.
Lawmakers are split on what needs to be done.
Speaking at a March 2015 Judiciary Committee hearing, Republican Sen. John Cornyn said, as written, H-1B isn’t so bad, the problem is that companies are breaking the rules, and violating the spirit of the visa law.
“The idea that you can legally hire a cheaper foreign worker and replace an American worker for a lower wage is illegal. It’s illegal,” Cornyn said.
“And if it’s happening, it ought to be prosecuted. It ought to be enforced. But the idea that somehow H-1B is a way to bring in cheap foreign labor and fire Americans is false—at least that’s not what Congress intended. And that’s not what the law says.”
The government only issues 85,000 new H-1B visas each year. Last year more than 230,000 people applied for the available spots. A lottery decided the “winners;” everybody else was out of luck.
Some supporters in Congress want to tweak the program so certain H-1B workers go to the head of the line. A reformed H-1B law could give priority status to foreigners educated at U.S. universities in science-and-technology fields.
In 2014, Bhadrachalam didn’t get picked. He worried he’d have to go back to India, where he’d earn less, and not use his Ph.D. level skills and education.
“It’s horrible that you spent so much, you worked so hard. You studied here and you still couldn’t go through,” he said.
Bhadrachalam stuck around on another non-renewable work permit, reapplied for the H-1B in 2016 and waited anxiously until he found out his name was chosen.
Tech industry giants like Facebook and Google have lobbied to increase the number of new H-1B visas. Other frustrated companies have moved parts of their operation to Canada and India, where they can employ foreign workers with fewer restrictions.
As with many topics, candidate Donald Trump was on more than one side of the H-1B issue.
At first, Trump said H-1B is ‘very, very bad’ for American workers. Later—during a Republican primary debate, he softened his position on highly skilled, foreign-born employees.
“They’ll go to Harvard, they’ll go to Stanford, they’ll go to Wharton, as soon as they’re finished they’ll get shoved out,” lamented Trump. “They want to stay in this country. They want to stay here desperately; they’re not able to stay here. For that purpose, we absolutely have to be able to keep the brain power in this country,” he said.
Giovanni Peri, who follows workforce trends, says Trump’s unpredictability has the tech world on edge.
“A Trump administration has not given any pragmatic and practical indication of what they will want to do,” he said.
If we want American workers to fill these positions, we need to ramp up science, technology and engineering education to create more talented graduates, Peri said. But that kind of nationwide initiative would require major investment and would take at least a few years to produce homegrown workers ready to design and build the parts we need for the phones and tech toys we all love.