H-1B Flaws Spur Reform Proposals

The Philippines is one of the top countries of origin of H-1B workers. For 2000-2009, 3.7 percent of all approved H-1B workers were born in the Philippines, according to a report of the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In response to a request from Congress, GAO studied the impact of the H-1B cap on employers’ costs and the program’s effect on U.S. workers. Among its many findings in the 118-page report, the group found that the majority of the approved H-1B workers were born in India (46.9%), China (8.9%), Canada (4.3%), and the Philippines.

It also learned that the demand for new H-1B workers exceeded the cap for those 10 years, and that this demand was driven by only a small number of employers: less than 1% of employers using the program accounted for a quarter of approved petitions.

The report also stated that more than 40% of approved H-1B workers (initial petitions and requests for visa extensions) were for occupations in systems analysis and programming, while 7% went to college and university education and 35% was for workers in other specialty occupations.

This finding is consistent with figures released by USCIS, which confirms that staffing companies are heavy users of H-1B visas. In 2010, the largest users of H-1B visa numbers were offshore IT service providers. India-based Infosys Technologies was the top H-1B employer in 2010 with almost 3,800 approved filings, followed by Cognizant, a New Jersey-based firm with a large offshore workforce, with almost 3,400. These figures led New York Senator Chuck Schumer to remark that the H-1B visa program has created “multinational temp agencies”.

The GAO report has spurred talks of H-1B visa program reform from opponents and supporters alike.

Recognizing that the H-1B program is necessary to keep the United States competitive, one Republican senator, Sen. Hatch of Utah, has urged the expansion of the H-1B program.

There is also a proposal for a new employment-based green card route for advanced degree graduates. An additional 20,000 H-1B visa numbers, on top of the 65,000 cap, are reserved for advanced-degree graduates of U.S. universities in the field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. If this effort is successful, these advanced-degree graduates would be able to bypass the H-1B process.

On the other hand, some U.S. senators (Sen. Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Durbin of Illinois) have expressed their concerns about the H-1B program, saying that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has no system of tracking how many H-1B workers are in the U.S. According to the GAO, the exact number of H-1B workers in the US or the length of their stay is unknown because data systems among agencies involved in the H-1B process (including the Department of Labor, USCIS and DHS) are not linked and there is no unique identifier that allows tracking of the workers and when their visa status changes.

The two senators criticized even the student visa extension that started during the Bush administration, which allowed some students on an F-1 visa to obtain optional practical training of up to 29 months, and proposed to limit the number of H-1B or L-1 visa workers to only half of each company’s workforce.

Introduced in 1990, the H-1B program was intended to allow U.S. employers to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations. There is a currently a cap of 65,000 on H-1B visas issued per year. Although H-1B is not a permanent visa, the worker can apply for H-1B extensions (or continuing employment petitions) and later apply for permanent residence in the U.S. Initial petitions are subject to the annual cap while extensions of status, change of employer, amendments and concurrent employment are cap-exempt.