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Replica of Wright Flyer No. 1
Credit: A.Luyckx

A new kind of visa ‘creativity’

Dayton, Ohio, home of air flight pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright and the “birthplace of aviation,” prides itself on invention. Wright State University (WSU), a public institution “inspired by the creative spirit of the Wright brothers [to] be Ohio’s most learning-centered and innovative university,” according to its vision statement, is one of the local entities honoring the city’s two most inventive sons. 

A recently revealed innovation developed by WSU has, however, resulted not in acclaim but in embarrassment; a federal investigation; and the firing, retirement, or demotion of a number of university officials, including the provost and the general counsel. The university-affiliated Wright State Research Institute (WSRI) has been using the H-1B skilled guest worker visa to hire foreign workers, apparently outside the visa program’s regulations, according to extensive investigative reporting by Josh Sweigart of the Dayton Daily News and others.

[T]he deal had little to do about research and more about bringing in cheap foreign IT workers.

–Ron Hira

The visa is widely used in the computer industry, especially to hire young workers, and also in academe to hire postdocs, instructors, and others. Different rules govern the hiring of H-1B workers by for-profit companies and nonprofit educational institutions, however. Visas for for-profit companies are difficult to obtain, because the number is strictly limited, and for-profit employers must pay the so-called prevailing wage, which, despite the name, is quite low. Universities, on the other hand, have no limit on how many H-1B visas they can obtain. They can also pay according to an even lower academic wage scale.

The WSU arrangement appears designed to use academic visas to bring in workers whose visas should be subject to the for-profit regulations. According to Sweigart, “Wright State University sponsored 19 foreign workers who came to the United States not to attend college but to work at an area information technology staffing company that paid the workers less than what local graduates typically make for similar IT work.” He notes that “[t]he workers were brought here under H-1B or work visas that require companies, agencies and schools to have an employer-employee relationship with the worker. But an … investigation found that the local company that contracted with Wright State for the workers, Web Yoga, told Wright State who to hire and when their employment ended.” This would indicate that Web Yoga, rather than the university, was the true employer.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

“Based on my reading of the Wright State–Web Yoga contracts, the deal had little to do about research and more about bringing in cheap foreign IT workers,” writes Ron Hira, a labor market expert at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in an email to Science Careers. “Certainly it would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, for employers to find qualified [local] Computer Science graduates willing to work for the $45,000 a year that they were being paid in the Wright State arrangement,” adds Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in New Jersey, by email.

WSRI also used an academic H1-B visa to hire a WSU Ph.D. graduate in materials science to work for “UES, a Dayton defense contractor whose CEO, Nina Joshi, sits on Wright State’s board of trustees,” for a salary of $65,000, a low rate for this position, Sweigart reports in another article. “Immigration experts say the arrangement may violate immigration laws,” he notes. That possibility “concerns us greatly,” said WSU President David Hopkins and university trustee president Michael Bridges in a statement quoted by the Dayton Daily News. Federal investigators are looking into the situation but as yet have not revealed results or brought charges.

Another “creative” use

A particularly egregious case from 2012 illustrates the potential financial gains possible from illegitimate exploitation of universities’ privileged ability to generate unlimited H-1B visas. According to a 2012 news release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Kizzy Kalu, a Nigerian-born naturalized American with multiple business interests, fabricated the fictitious Adam University, ostensibly located in Denver, Colorado. The imaginary institution’s president was Philip Langerman, who earned a legitimate Ph.D. from Iowa State University with a dissertation on, appropriately enough, determining the need for skilled workers. The nonexistent university advertised abroad for nurses, who are not eligible for H-1B status if they practice their profession in health care settings. The jobs advertised, though, were for nursing professors, who would qualify for H-1B visas, to teach in the equally nonexistent nursing school.

Once the nurses arrived, they were farmed out, through a staffing agency operated by Kalu, to jobs in nursing homes, where they were paid less than the $72,000 a year they had been promised. The nursing homes paid a fee to the staffing agency, and the nurses also paid a kickback. In further contravention of the law, the criminals charged the nurses a fee for their visas, which the employer is obligated to pay. In addition, the con men threatened any nurses who objected with deportation. “When one nurse stopped making payments, Kalu signed a letter advising immigration officials that she no longer worked for Adam University, and her visa was revoked. Others also had their visas revoked after they refused to pay Kalu,” The Denver Post reports. Officials seem not to have noticed that there was no Adam University. Perhaps the existence of perfectly genuine Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, provided cover for the conspirators.

Langerman and Kalu were eventually indicted on scores of charges involving mail and visa fraud, trafficking in forced labor, money laundering, and more. Langerman, 78, pled guilty to one count of mail and visa fraud and was sentenced to 3 years probation. Kalu, 44, was convicted of 89 of the 95 charges against him and sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by 3 years of supervised release. The pair must also give almost $4 million in restitution to the victims of their scheme.

How common is it?

Experts agree that the WSU and Adam University cases may be indicative of a broader trend. “I’ve heard comments about IT companies using their relationships with universities to exploit the special status of universities in the H-1B system,” Hira tells Science Careers by email. Immigration “chicanery occurs everywhere, in all the big mainstream firms, and yes, in academia too,” agrees H-1B expert Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis, in a recent blog post.

“The pressure on universities to raise external funding has always been heavy, and today it's more intense than ever,” Matloff tells Science Careers by email. “This naturally leads to ‘creative’ use of legal loopholes.” Collaborative arrangements with industry offer universities a variety of opportunities for enhanced income. Still, “[t]urning the university [research] foundation into a guestworker labor broker seems so far outside the intent, if not the law, of the H-1B program [that] it's hard to imagine a university or its legal counsel engaging in such practices and one would hope that this is an exception,” Salzman writes in his email. “However, it is just the extreme example of the general practice of some universities that do set up computer science programs as a business model of increasing revenue while providing low cost labor to the IT industry.”

At present, it’s unclear whether WSU’s visa “creativity” is an aberration or just the most visible example of behavior practiced on other campuses as well. As Matloff notes, “[n]ature abhors an unused loophole.”