With immigration and foreign labor being a hot topic of discussion within the United States today, the H1-B Visa program is the subject of ongoing debate. At its core, the H1-B is simple to understand: it’s a non-immigrant program, which allows corporations based in America to employ skilled foreign laborers when they can’t find a suitable, highly specialized individual locally. Said laborers are allowed to live and work in America for a period of three years, which may be extended to six years under certain circumstances. An individual who leaves or is dismissed from their employment prior to the end of their term has 60 days to apply for a change of status, find new employment (also, potentially, dependent upon a change of status), or leave the country.
This seems straightforward enough. The H1-B Visa sounds like a good way to ensure access to “the right person, for the right job.” However, the program remains highly controversial, for a variety of reasons.
Here are 5 problems with the H1-B program, as it is commonly represented today:
Excessive Numbers of Visas
The industries and fields with which the H1-B is concerned are highly advanced cutting-edge fields. These include such fields as computer science, artificial intelligence, medicine and physical chemistry, among many others. At the level of employment to which this program is relevant, there are relatively small numbers of people employed within the U.S.; there may be only a few dozen to a few hundred people occupying such a tier, within a particular industry. In some cases, there are a few thousand people. At any given time, however, there are millions of H1-B workers living and working in the United States. This leads to concerns that the program is edging Americans out of more than just jobs, but is actually pushing American citizens out of certain industries entirely.
Legitimate excesses aren’t the only issue that many people have with this program. There are companies in the United States which purport to hire foreign workers to fill skilled positions, when in fact what they do is bring over skilled, highly-trained workers from third world countries as a sort of “international temp agency.” Relying upon said workers’ lack of knowledge of U.S. employment laws, these agencies “employ” these workers within specific industries, while actually hiring them out to other companies as a cheap source of skilled labor. The foreign worker makes significantly more than they did in their own country, frequently equivalent to a middle-class income in America. The company they actually work for gets a skilled worker for a fraction of the industry’s standard. The company that brought the laborer to the United States receives part of the pay that would go to the worker.
An Inexpensive Shortcut
If there are hundreds, or even thousands of jobs available in a particular capacity, which were once filled by American citizens, some wonder why they aren’t still filled with American citizens today, arguing that the United States has a duty to protect the livelihood of its people. The assertion has been made that the H1-B is being used as a shortcut to hire inexpensive foreign workers, in lieu of their more highly-paid American counterparts. Proponents of this viewpoint find it difficult to believe that there are no American citizens available to fill literally thousands of jobs based on a lack of technical expertise, as opposed to a few short-term positions calling for very specific skills.
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Impact on Higher Education
There have been some studies which suggest that the prevalence of the H1-B program is becoming a self-justified phenomenon. Some say that, by dominating the higher tiers of certain highly technical fields, the H1-B program is discouraging American students from pursuing graduate programs in those fields. It remains unclear as to whether this is a direct and visceral effect of the program as it is, or if it is actually a response to students’ (potentially false) impressions of career viability. What is certain is that fewer American students are entering the fields which the H1-B is involved in, suggesting that some reform or educational initiative is needed.
Creation of Foreign Competition
Inevitably, participants in the H1-B program return to their home countries after a few years, taking their knowledge and experience with them. This makes them extremely valuable to their own governments. In the last few years, Indonesia, China, India and the Philippines have all developed “Silicon Valleys” of their own, and individuals who were formerly a part of the H1-B program in America have been directly involved in their rise to prominence. There are undoubtedly pros and cons to this, with regard to American self-sufficiently, but opponents argue that we are creating sources of cheap labor that will further compete with skilled American workers, as well as with American business interests overseas.
The H1-B Visa program is solidly based in the idea of temporarily shoring up very specific areas of skilled expertise in the American labor force. However, its extensions, along with its broadly-based applicability, would seem to carry it beyond its original mission. This suggests a need for one of two things: either a reform of how the H1-B program functions, or a broad educational initiative to better inform Americans about why it is the way it is today, and what its impacts are on the job industry within the United States.