By Curt Woodward
Already roiled by President Trump’s immigration crackdown, high-tech employers are bracing for a more direct disruption of their business as the administration considers major changes to a visa program that supplies tens of thousands of skilled workers each year.
Changes to the visa program in question, known as H-1B, probably won’t inspire the waves of protest that greeted Trump’s ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. In fact, criticism of the visa program has come from both parties, with some Democrats advocating changes that could raise workers’ wages.
On Monday, the White House acknowledged reports it was considering an executive order to alter the H-1B program, in part to prioritize giving jobs to American workers, with spokesman Sean Spicer saying the possible order was “part of a larger immigration effort,” according to USA Today.
Taken together, the developments are “fanning the flames of fear among the legal immigration community,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, which has argued for fewer restrictions on H1-B visas.
“We benefit from attracting the best and the brightest to Massachusetts, and we do not want to see any policy that hinders our ability to attract the best talent and be a leading job creator,” Anderson said. “It would appear that the new administration is going to have to take a crash course in unintended consequences if it is going to be successful.”
As a candidate, Trump was highly critical of the H-1B program. “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program,” Trump said in March. “No exceptions.”
Several news outlets have reported that the Trump administration is drafting an a draft executive that would, among other things, launch a review of all regulations that allow foreign nationals to work in the United States.
The H-1B program was established in 1990 to help American employers fill jobs with highly skilled overseas workers, most of whom flow into high-tech fields. The federal government caps the annual number of H-1B visa issuances for commercial sponsors at 65,000, with another 20,000 visas available for people who have at least a master’s degree from a US college. Universities who sponsor H-1B visas are considered a separate class of employer and not subject to the cap.
In Massachusetts, the visas are coveted by tech and life sciences companies — Akamai Technologies and Biogen are among those that applied for such visas according to federal records. The US government certified more than 45,000 positions in Massachusetts that were eligible for H-1B workers in federal fiscal year 2015. However, because of the federal cap and other reasons, many of those certified positions ultimately are not filled.
Experts say the largest number of requests typically come from IT outsourcing firms that provide technology support to other companies. Outsourcing companies accounted for 13 percent of the H-1B visa requests in New England between 2010 and 2012, higher than the national rate, according to a study by the New England Public Policy Center.
Ron Hira, an associate professor at Howard University, told a US Senate subcommittee last year that these outsourcing companies tend to pay their workers below-average wages. Hira, a longtime H-1B critic, thinks the system should require companies to pay higher minimum salaries and to also first vigorously try to hire American workers before going abroad. Hira also favors random audits of employers to ensure that they’re not abusing the visa system.
“The programs are widely being used to undercut American workers and to facilitate the offshoring of middle class jobs,” Hira said.
Changes to the H-1B program could be a rare chance for bipartisan agreement on immigration. Some of those proposals would focus on raising the wages paid to H-1B recipients, which could make the system less attractive as a lower-cost alternative to US workers.
Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, has proposed a bill to raise the minimum salary for H-1B visa workers from $60,000 to $100,000, with automatic increases tied to inflation. Issa said that will protect US workers from being displaced by cheaper H-1B employees.
Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, wants to get rid of the lottery used to decide which companies get the scarce visas. Instead, she would tie visas to salaries, with companies that offer higher pay to foreign workers bumped to the front of the line.
GOP Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois also want to do away with the lottery system. They’re backing a bill that would prefer certain applicants over others. For instance, a foreigner who earned a degree in the US would get priority over graduates of non-US schools.
Anderson, the Mass High Tech Council president, said any shifts in the H-1B program’s outlines should focus on lifting the cap on visas, which is quickly filled each year. Making H-1B visas harder to get, he said, could just drive those jobs to overseas staffing firms that can fill the demand.
“The H-1B visa limits have historically limited economic activity and employment activity in Massachusetts, and certainly around the country,” he said. “Anything that makes that more difficult puts more pressure on job growth here and creates relief valves in other nations.”