Even as immigration advocates push for increases to the H-1B visa quotas, calls for reform to the existing system are growing louder — from legislators and immigration advocacy groups alike.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senator Dick Durbin, a ranking Democrat, introduced a bill that would limit outsourcing of jobs by requiring companies to first attempt to hire U.S. citizens. The bill, called the “H1-B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2015,” also includes protections for fair wages for visa holders. It presents the latest tension point in Silicon Valley’s ongoing push to secure more high skilled immigration visas.
H-1B visas allow U.S. companies to employ highly skilled workers from other countries in technical roles in fields like engineering.
The visa reform bill places pressure on Indian outsourcing firms, as well as engineers and programmers in India attempting to obtain H-1B visas, which is already a complicated and time consuming process for many.
Grassley and Durbin have been pushing for such a measure since 2007. A spokeswoman from Grassley’s office said this year’s bill is the first to introduce an H-1B allocation preference system. The system would prioritize applicants for H-1Bs who have been educated in the United States, and it would give preference to workers with advanced degrees.
Grassley’s office said despite concerns raised by the tech industry, Grassley strongly supports the provision because he is concerned about abuse of the existing H-1B system. Grassley held a hearing earlier this year on high-skilled immigration reform.
“The abuse of the system is real, and media reports are validating what we have argued for years,” said Grassley in a news release.
At the hearing, Grassley specifically cited Infosys as one of the offender of the system, citing the company’s $34 million settlement of a 2013 immigration case. The software company was accused of using workers with B-1 business visas to perform jobs that should be reserved for workers with the highly skilled H-1B visas.
Immigration Voice, an advocacy group, also backs the bill. The group says the bill gives visa holders legal and mobility protections. The group explained one of the biggest issues that it sees with the H1-B system is that the existing policies tie workers to specific employers, and they risk losing their visa if they attempt to switch jobs. This prevents employees from seeking competitive compensation or other areas in the same industry.
“You might expect that a group like ours is fiercely opposed to it, but that is not the case,” Aman Kapoor, co-founder of advocacy group Immigration Voice, told TechCrunch.
One of the ways in which the bill aims to mitigate this is to put immigration papers in the hands of employees, as opposed to their employers.
“There is significant exploitation in the marketplace, and anybody who will tell you otherwise is not telling you the truth,” Kapoor said to TechCrunch.
Other groups more that work more closely with Silicon Valley companies view the bill somewhat differently, acknowledging issues with H-1B misuse but arguing that the benefits of high-skilled immigration outweighed these abuses. With 315,857 H1-B petitions granted in Fiscal Year 2014, any moves to change the system could potentially upend a large number of employees. 63% of these petitions were granted to employers with more than 25 employees. Many of these large employers include Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple, as well as Microsoft and Intel.
Advocacy group FWD.us argued in favor of the importance of high-skilled immigration and the rights of immigrants.
“We strongly advocate for portability and mobility and that’s a big part of what we’ve done here,” said Todd Schulte, CEO of FWD.us, in an interview with TechCrunch. Schulte emphasized that his organization was in favor with what he called ‘common-sense’ immigration proposals.
Though the bill may present a significant challenge to the tech industry, recent history has shown that immigration reform of any kind has been unable to gain serious traction in the halls of Congress.
This bill is one for the industry to watch, but likely will not move quickly in Congress. Though it has little chance of passage, the seniority of the bill’s sponsors is causing it to draw some scrutiny.