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How could the H-1B visa program for foreign workers be improved?

April 18, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Trump called on Tuesday for U.S. agencies to “buy American and hire American” and signed an executive order targeting H-1B guest worker visas, which help find foreign labor to fill technical jobs. Critics say the visa system is being abused. William Brangham talks to Economic Policy Institute's Daniel Costa and Vivek Wadhwa of Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump today renewed his call for U.S. agencies to — quote — “buy American and hire American” following a tour of a tool-making plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin today.

Our William Brangham has the story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: During his Wisconsin visit, the president signed an executive order to encourage federal agencies to use more American workers and products. It also targeted what are known as H-1B guest worker visas, which the president said hurt those same workers.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Right now, H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery, and that’s wrong. Instead, they should be given to the most skilled and highest paid applicants, and they should never, ever be used to replace Americans. No one can compete with American workers when they are given a fair and level playing field, which has not happened for decades.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The H-1B visa system is meant to help U.S. employers find foreign labor to fill highly technical jobs they can’t fill with U.S. workers. But critics, including the president, say the system is being abused.

We turn to two people who have followed this issue closely.

Daniel Costa is director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank here in Washington, D.C. And Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. He teaches and writes on technology and entrepreneurship.

Welcome to you both.

Daniel Costa, I would like to start with you.

You heard the brief introduction that I made about these visas. Explain, what is the intention of the H-1B visa?

DANIEL COSTA, Economic Policy Institute: Well, the program is usually sold by the companies that use it as a program to bring in the best and the brightest workers from abroad and also to be used when no qualified U.S. workers can be found.

And the reality is, though, that that’s not what the law requires. Employers are not required to search for and offer jobs to U.S. workers, and they can also pay much lower wages, based on the way the wage rules are set up in the program.

And so that’s sort of the main — the two main things that are wrong with the program, and so the program doesn’t have a lot of credibility, and some fixes are definitely required.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Vivek Wadhwa, the president argues that there is a ready supply of American tech workers to fill these jobs and that the visa program is being abused. What is your reaction to that?

VIVEK WADHWA, Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley: There are people with some skills, but the type of skills that Silicon Valley is looking for are always in short supply because technology is changing so fast.

And immigration is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley. You know, yes, there is some is abuse, but it is badly needed by Silicon Valley for what it does, which is to build these amazing, new, innovative products.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Daniel Costa, what do you respond to that? Does this complement U.S. workers or does it replace the workers?

DANIEL COSTA: I think that there’s no question that America needs the best and the brightest skilled immigrants from abroad. I don’t think anybody is debating that.

I think what is at issue here is the terms and conditions under which those migrants come to work in the United States. They’re coming in a visa that ties them to their employers, so they’re quasi-indentured. And they’re able to be paid much lower wages.

And so what you have is, the program is set up in a way that has four wage levels, and the two lowest wage levels are below the local average wage for the job, and 80 percent of the H-1B jobs that are coming in are coming in at a wage that is lower than the local average wage.

And so what that means is that either these are the best and brightest workers who are coming in, and they’re being vastly underpaid, or they’re just entry-level workers who are coming in. those lower level wages are listed as the entry-level wage.

So, that’s the reality. I think that prioritizing higher-wage visas or higher-skilled workers coming in under those visas, it won’t lower the number that are coming in, and certainly some companies really need these workers. But we should shift to a higher-wage, higher-skill work force that comes in on the visas.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Vivek, what’s your reaction to that? If you’re bringing workers in from other lands, and they are being paid less than American workers, there is a fundamental fairness issue, that many American workers, including the president, would say, that’s not right, we shouldn’t be doing that.

VIVEK WADHWA: Yes. And I agree with that, by the way. I agree with what Daniel says.

And the problem is that this visa ties the worker to the employer, which is where the indentured servitude comes from. So, when you’re waiting for a green card, for which for Indians could take 10, 15 years, you’re basically locked into that employer, and the employer does pay substandard wages because the employer can get away with it.

They have people who are locked in. A very simple solution. Let’s — a very simple solution. Let’s decouple the employer from the visa. In other words, let the visa go to the employee, so that the employee can shift jobs and go to the highest-paid employer.

Why do we have to have them linked up the way they are? If we did that, suddenly, the market forces would prevail, and it would fix the problem in one fell swoop, except we don’t talk about it.

A lot of the attacks on the visa are to stop immigration altogether and to cut off the lifeline to Silicon Valley. We need to have intelligent conversations and fix the real problem there is, which is tethering the employee to the employer.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Would that be a solution? If the worker came in, and the visa belonged to them, and then, if they didn’t like the pay they were getting at company A, couldn’t they then just go and work for company B?

DANIEL COSTA: That just wouldn’t be enough to fix the way the program is set up.

There is a very easy, simple solution that’s out there. It’s been proposed in bipartisan legislation by Senators Durbin and Grassley, and all it would simply do is require that employers recruit and hire U.S. workers before hiring an H-1B worker, and it would require that employers pay at least the local average wage, so eliminate the two lowest wage levels.

And then it would also create a prioritization scheme for the lottery that allocates the visas. However, the tech industry and the corporate lobbies have been strongly against these basically simple, commonsense solutions. Just being able to switch to another employer is not going to fix a lot of the problems.

It’s something, and I think that we should move away from these non-immigrant temporary visa statuses, because they’re terrible for workers, because they are tied to employers. It’s the same issue with low-skilled visas.

But workers need to be coming in. We need to be making sure that there is an actual labor shortage, an actual need before the worker comes in. And then, once they come in, we should be putting them on a quick and easy path to permanent residency and a green card and citizenship.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Vivek, what do you think of that? There’s a lot of proposals there, but the idea that…

VIVEK WADHWA: Too complex.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: … if a job for a computer engineer of a certain category is $150,000 a year, that’s what the immigrant laborer should be paid as well?

VIVEK WADHWA: I agree with that.

But if the employee is allowed to change jobs — keep it simple. If the employee can change jobs like every other American can right now, the employer would have to pay market wages. The employer will select the best person.

Why do we have to become nationalistic and saying you have to have white skin or you have to be born in America to get a job with an American company? The majority of the income that — a lot of American companies will say this from abroad. They market their goods globally.

If we’re now going to shut off the rest of the world, the rest of the world will shut us off and it will impact our economy. The simplest thing over here is to untether the visa from the employer and let the free market prevail.

This is what makes America great, is the free market. Let’s go back to that. Let’s not have more regulation or more loopholes that can be subverted, which is what we were talking about. Simple. Untether the two things, let the free market rule. That’s what I’m saying.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Daniel Costa, Vivek Wadhwa, thank you both very much for being here.

DANIEL COSTA: Thank you.