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The issue of guest worker visas came to the fore again when Microsoft, one of the most vocal proponents of the H-1B visa, announced that they would lay-off 5,000 workers. That led Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to worry over how many Americans would lose their jobs as opposed to how many foreign guest workers would, which led him to publicly call on Microsoft to prioritize American workers over foreign guest workers as the company downsizes.

That, of course, has led to questions about the legality of firing H-1B workers first, but it has also led to a trio of more important questions: Does a guest worker program that allows for the import of foreign workers make any sense when companies large and small are shedding employees? Don’t American workers face enough competition with the addition of foreign workers? Should the US Government, which should be in the business of supporting American workers, be permitting foreign workers to come in and take American jobs?

The Latest H-1B Controversy

The idea of the H-1B visa is that when a company has a specific need, and they cannot find an American to fill that need, they can look overseas. The visa allows these talented people to come to the US and work for their sponsoring company for up to six years before going home or renewing their visa. It seems like a reasonable program to help US companies compete by bringing in fresh talent they cannot find at home. The problem is that the reality, as so often happens with government programs, is far different from the concept.

According to Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, H-1B visas rarely go to exceptional talent, as intended by the framers of the law. They are often used by “body shops,” firms that provide contract labor to other companies. “H-1B visas are not being used as they were intended,” said Mehlman.

That would be a separate issue until we look at our bailed-out financial sector. A recent AP story showed that bailed out banks, those that received the highest amounts of taxpayer money, were firing thousands of people while, at the same time, applying for thousands of H-1B visas. Americans get the boot, foreign workers get the work. In response, Grassley and Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, introduced an amendment to the stimulus plan that would bar banks that have received a taxpayer bailout from the U.S. Treasury Department or the Federal Reserve from hiring H-1B guest workers for a year.

In light of this, it is appropriate to examine all aspects of the guest worker program. One would think that protecting home-grown Americans from losing their livelihoods in much the same way that other governments protect their people would be something we could all agree on. One would be wrong.

Pro H-1B: Servicing The Tech Sector

Mehlman may be right when he discusses “body shops,” but the folks hiring foreign expertise in the Tech Sector, especially companies like India-based Infosys Technologies, which provide outsourcing services for American tech firms, see moves like Grassley’s as just another form of protectionism. In a recent statement, Infosys said:

In a globalized world, corporate decisions should be based on economic realities rather than on political considerations. The US has succeeded in the past due to its openness and free trade both in products and services. Any changes which could bring artificial restrictions on free movement of goods and people will be a huge setback to the globalization process.

As for Microsoft, their response noted the special problems that guest workers would face by losing their jobs and said of the layoffs that:

We made the difficult decisions on which jobs would be eliminated based on a detailed assessment of our current and future business opportunities. The initial reductions we announced affect employees in a number of business units, and a significant number of the affected employees are foreign citizens working in this country on a visa.

It is a nice response, but it really does not answer Senator Grassley, except to say that everyone is vulnerable to the axe. Intel, Oracle, IBM and Accenture have all refused comment but all are heavy sponsors of guest workers.

The Bottom Line

These are questions that do demand answers. The folks at Infosys speak of the globalization process, and if that was the point, they might have an argument. Unfortunately, globalization is not the point, putting Americans back to work, however, is the point and legal impediments to accomplishing that should be removed. One would not expect China to favor imported American employees over displaced Chinese workers, or Germany to turn its back on unemployed Germans for the sake of transplanted Italian workers. Why is that acceptable here in the US?

That is the emotional argument and however correct it may be, that is not going to win this. What will is the fact that Mehlman is right, the guest worker visa law is being misused and should be amended so that this misuse is no longer possible. Limiting the visas to skilled or professional people and forcing American firms to actively look for Americans to fill their positions before looking overseas would help a great deal. It would not close the door, at least not entirely, and it would make sure that American candidates have a chance at American jobs before anyone else does. The law should also make sure that American jobs are the last ones cut when it is lay-off time. After all, isn’t it time for America to focus on taking care of Americans?