Jeff Sessions

Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Senate committee hears voices of STEM workers

“Elections have consequences,” President Barack Obama reportedly told Republican Party leaders soon after his inauguration in 2009. On 17 March, one of the consequences of Republicans’ recent victories in the Senate was on display at a hearing on high-skill guest worker visas by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) now chairs that powerful body, and Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) chairs the newly renamed Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest.

Jay Palmer

Jay Palmer

CREDIT:

How this change will affect the fate of future immigration legislation is unclear, but already it has sharply altered the congressional conversation. Grassley and Sessions are both long-time critics of the H-1B guest worker visa program. Under their leadership, the hearing, in contrast to earlier ones on the same topic, did not emphasize industry’s assertions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-worker shortages; companies’ supposed difficulties finding Americans with needed skills; or the travails of foreign workers trying to stay in this country. Instead, the hearing—entitled “Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers”—focused largely on the practice of replacing existing, often longstanding, employees with cheaper guest workers and preferentially hiring guest workers over Americans under the H-1B visa program and the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which permits work on extended student visas.

Glutted markets are discouraging American students from seeking STEM careers, [Hal Salzman] warned.

“Claims by U.S. businesses that there just aren’t enough U.S. workers … fall flat” in the face of large layoffs, Grassley said in his opening statement. He cited job ads specifically targeting visa holders rather than Americans. “The voices of American workers must be heard,” he continued. Congress needs to “ensure that American workers and students are given every chance to fill vacant jobs.”

Witnessing displacement

Five witnesses disputed the existence of any shortage and detailed the harm to American tech workers, particularly those with 10 to 15 years of experience and commensurate salaries. Most dramatic was the testimony of Jay Palmer of Montgomery, a former employee of major Indian outsourcer Infosys, whose whistleblowing about abusive practices led to a $34 million settlement between the company and the federal government. “I’m displaced. Now I’m the future American worker,” he said. The guest workers given the Americans’ former jobs are generally not highly skilled and, in fact, require considerable training, which their laid-off predecessors are forced to provide, he said. Because he called out Infosys, he cannot get a job in the industry, he said. “Nobody will touch me because everybody’s cheating.”

<p>Ron Hira</p>

Ron Hira

CREDIT: Ron Hira and the Rochester Institute of Technology

Congress has “inadvertently created a highly lucrative business model” of replacing American workers with cheaper foreign labor, said labor market expert Ron Hira of Howard University in Washington, D.C, formerly of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The replacement workers are not the “best and brightest,” he added, but “ordinary IT workers with ordinary skills.” No one knows how many are in the United States, he said, but “you’re talking over a million people.” About 80% of those brought by the two largest users of H-1B visas, the Indian outsourcing giants Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), have “no more than a bachelor’s degree.” He recounted watching RIT graduates forced to train their foreign replacements at Xerox; anyone who balks risks losing unemployment benefits and severance pay, he added. In addition, the laid off are forced to sign confidentiality agreements and thus fear to speak publicly about their experiences. Sessions said he has received many confidential communications from displaced workers that corroborate Palmer’s and Hira’s accounts.

Rutgers University labor force expert Hal Salzman distinguished between a skills shortage and difficulties hiring workers at the price an employer wants to pay. Not everyone who wants to can get an off-price TV on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, but that does not indicate a shortage of TVs, he said. Likewise, employers’ inability to find as many low-cost workers as they want does not indicate a worker shortage. The H-1B visa lottery “is a 20% off sale,” he continued. Only about 15% of H-1B visas are used in a “talent hunt” for exceptional workers; the rest are used for outsourcing, he continued. The “I-Squared” bill, if passed, would “provide 150% of what the industry says they need.” Glutted markets are discouraging American students from seeking STEM careers, he warned.

<p>Hal Salzman</p>

Hal Salzman

Courtesy of Rutgers University

John Miano, an attorney and former tech worker representing the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers in Bellevue, Washington—he is also a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which describes its philosophy as “low-immigration, pro-immigrant”—pointed out that the OPT, which is widely used to allow foreign students to get jobs, has “no statutory justification” and was created in 1992 not by Congress but by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. “Industry groups came up with a scam to use OPT to circumvent H-1B quotas,” he said. Though they work on student visas, OPT workers are not students, he added.

“Corporate interests insist on low wages,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “The law should unambiguously state it is illegal to replace an American worker [with guest workers] under any circumstances.” In addition to suppressing wages and fostering abuse of “captive” guest workers, he added, the large inflows of guest workers allow American employers to overlook groups underrepresented in STEM fields, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and women.

Other views

Conspicuously absent on the panel were the representatives of major corporations usually present at such gatherings. The skills-shortage narrative was carried by Benjamin Johnson of the American Immigration Council, which works at “shaping how Americans think and act towards immigration now and in the future,” according to its website. Bjorn Billhardt, a native of Germany who now runs Enspire, an Austin, Texas, company with 30 employees that sells training programs, embodied the immigrants-as-job-creators argument. As Computerworld’s Patrick Thibodeau notes, the website of FWD.us, the advocacy group started by Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, carries Billhardt’s story.

In addition, a number of senators who favor expanded high-skill immigration made pro-forma statements on skills shortages and the value of immigrants. These included Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a leader on the comprehensive reform bill passed by the last Senate, and two sponsors of the I-Squared bill, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Klobuchar’s state experienced the outsourcing of hundreds of IT jobs at the Cargill food company through TCS, as Thibodeau and his colleague Sharon Machlis have reported. While observing senatorial courtesy in calling on these colleagues to speak, Sessions, who chaired the bulk of the session, kept it focused on job losses for Americans, both actual and potential.

Questions during the hearing frequently touched on two recent cases in California. Utility company Southern California Edison (SCE) has been criticized for its planned layoff of hundreds of employees in favor of H-1B workers hired through Infosys and TCS. And in an act that resembles self-parody, California’s Employment Development Department, which processes the claims of Golden State residents thrown out of work, has outsourced its IT department to Indian H-1B workers employed by Deloitte, the tenth largest user of the visas. The displaced SCE workers earned an average of $110,000 a year, while the replacements get $70,000, Hira said at the hearing.

Sessions cited a figure of 190,000 recent layoffs and mentioned a poll showing that Americans believe by almost 10 to 1 that when businesses have trouble getting workers, they should raise wages and improve conditions rather than import workers from abroad. “We have no obligation to yield to the lust of big businesses,” he said in conclusion. How he and Grassley will affect legislation remains to be seen.

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