Jonathan Osborne's picture

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  by  Jonathan Osborne

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement hosted a hearing Thursday morning called “H-1B Visas: Designing a Program to Meet the Needs of the U.S. Economy and U.S. Workers."

The Congressmen in attendance were Elton Gallegly (Subcommittee Chairman) of California, Lamar Smith (Committee Chairman) of Texas, Steve King (Subcommittee Vice-Chairman) of Iowa, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Ted Poe of Texas, Dennis Ross of Florida, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Dan Lungren of California, Zoe Lofgren (Subcommittee Ranking Member) of California, John Conyers (Committee Ranking Member) of Michigan, and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

The witnesses were Donald Neufeld from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, an immigration attorney named Bo Cooper, Dr. Ron Hira from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Bruce Morrison with the Morrison Public Affairs Group.

This was the first immigration hearing held by the Immigration Subcommittee in three weeks and it was nice to see Members returning to legislative business. Also, despite spring showers in Washington, D.C., this hearing commanded a large crowd with no empty seats and “committee full” signs posted on the doors.

I attended the hearing with our NumbersUSA intern Kimberly as an orientation to the Immigration Subcommittee and overall committee process. She was slightly overwhelmed by the large crowd size, small room, and length of the hearing. I explained that the topic of H-1B visas attracts a larger collection of interests beyond the usual students, interns, and immigration staffers. People representing business and education were also in attendance. Kimberly was also surprised to hear Chairman Gallegly mention that this was the first hearing on H-1B visas in five years. However, I told her it wasn’t that much of a surprise since the two previous Congresses wouldn’t touch immigration issues with an eight foot pole. While this current Congress is still new and not particularly aggressive on immigration, at least they’ll constructively discuss the issues.

Chairman Gallegly opened the hearing with some simple background information on the H-1B program, including its place in relation to the recession and concerns about fraud and enforcement.

Ranking Member Lofgren, on the other hand, discussed the needs of her Silicon Valley based Congressional District. She said immigration restrictions are hurting technological innovation, thus preventing economic growth. Likewise, she said sending foreign students back to the home countries is a serious “brain drain” on the United States.

Committee Chairman Lamar Smith then presented an opening statement discussing the merits of the H-1B program, similar to Mr. Gallegly, yet went into more depth with concerns about how the program is currently operated. Specifically, he said,

I am also concerned about the legacy of fraud in the H-1B program. At a hearing over a decade ago, we heard about petitioning companies that were nothing more than a P.O. Box, an abandoned building or a fictitious address and single telephone number. We heard about H-1B workers slated for employment as janitors or nurse’s aides or store clerks.

Apparently, such fraud is not a thing of the past, despite a $500 anti-fraud fee that was instituted in 2004. In 2008, USCIS’s Office of Fraud Detection and National Security issued an assessment that found outright fraud in over 13% of randomly selected cases.

Unfortunately, the issues of fraud and program management remained the primary topics of concern for most of the Republican side instead of whether or not foreign workers are still necessary during the peak of our recession.

On the other hand, the Democrats just wanted more green cards. Ranking Member Conyers even suggested that a green card should be granted to every foreign student that earns an advanced diploma. He said, “Just staple a green card to the graduate certificate.”

America has the best university system in the world. Students from across the globe want to study in the United States and thousands are enrolled in our schools each year under various programs and areas of research. Just imagine the immigration nightmare Mr. Conyers’ suggestion would create.

On the other hand, Mr. Conyers’ questions for Dr. Hira produced some of the best answers of the hearing including concerns for wages.

Dr. Hira said, “H-1Bs are designed to complement the workforce, not displace workers.” He went on to express concern for bringing in workers at below market wages even though they may be paid prevailing wages. He also expressed concern about whether or not H-1Bs are really the best and brightest instead of simply a cheap alternative to American workers. Many workers apparently learn the top trade secrets, fulfill their visa requirements, and then return to their home countries to sell their skills to the highest bidder.

When it was Lofgren’s turn to question the witnesses she directed her questions to Mr. Neufeld from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. She asked why green cards from 1992 to 2007 were not all issued despite the long waiting lines. Mr. Neufeld responded by saying they had been using up all the visas in recent years, but adjustment of status cases take first priority.

When it was Sheila Jackson Lee’s turn, she again expressed her support (like every hearing) for “comprehensive immigration (amnesty) reform” to fix the H-1B problem along with the “DREAM kids,” referring to the DREAM Act amnesty for the children of illegal aliens. Like Mr. Conyers, she then went on to express support for more green cards.

In contrast, Steve King directly questioned the panel about whether or not there is too much legal immigration. Without much surprise, Mr. Cooper defiantly replied that there is “not enough legal immigration” (after all, he is an immigration attorney). Dr. Hira wasn’t sure if there was too much and Mr. Morrison said Congress should determine the level of national interest for immigration. Mr. King then responded by saying that too much legal immigration drives down wages.

Freshman Representatives Ross and Gowdy then questioned the panel about wage depression and returned to the topic of prevailing wage instead of market wage with concerns for undercutting current workers. Mr. Ross even went a step further and asked if H-1Bs were creating age discrimination and Dr. Hira said it enabled such discrimination. Age discrimination by itself is worth a hearing and I’m glad to hear Mr. Ross and Dr. Hira relate it to the H-1B visa program.

In closing, while this was not a substantial hearing as far as new ideas and productive debate, I do believe it was a positive step for this Congress to reopen debate and oversight on the H-1B visa program. I also think this is a topic that needs to be considered by the House Committee on Education and Labor as they work on ways to encourage more Americans to pursue advanced degrees in engineering, medicine, and computer science.

I don’t think any side of the H-1B debate would disagree that we need more Americans in these fields. I agree that we need innovation to grow the economy, but we can’t continue to import short-term talent from foreign countries or else we’ll just inevitably help nations like the Peoples Republic of China strengthen and grow their economies at the same time. Despite only three Democrats at this rainy day hearing, it’s sure to be different and exciting next week when the Subcommittee discusses Visa Lottery.

JONATHAN OSBORNE is the Chief Legislative Analyst for NumbersUSA

Tags:  
America's Jobless
American workers
Legal Immigration
H-1B visas

Updated: Wed, Mar 19th 2014 @ 5:00pm EDT

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