Congress needs to reform H-1B visa program, watchdog says
GAO: Worker protections under H-1B have eroded over the years
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Jan 18, 2011
Congress should reform the H-1B visa program for skilled foreign workers because it might not be performing effectively and might not be protecting American workers adequately, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
The 118-page report offers a number of findings and recommendations about the controversial H-1B visa program that allows U.S. employers to hire tens of thousands of skilled foreign workers on a temporary basis each year. Many federal contractors support the program because they believe it helps U.S. competitiveness.
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Congress created the H-1B visa program in 1990 to enable U.S. employers to hire temporary, foreign workers in specialty occupations. Initially, the number of visas was capped at 65,000 per year, but the cap has fluctuated with various legislative provisions, and in most years, demand has exceeded the cap. In 2009, approximately 85,000 H-1B visas were approved.
According to the GAO report, fewer than 1 percent of employers garnered more than 25 percent of all H-1B approvals. Most of the workers from 2000 to 2009 came from India, China, Canada and the Philippines.
Although Congress initially included protections for American workers to ensure that U.S. wages would not be adversely affected by the hiring of too many temporary foreign workers, over time the protections have been weakened by various legislative changes, fragmented and limited agency oversight, and data limitations that prevent better targeting of the caps, the report states.
The report indicates that in several wage categories, the median wages paid to H-1B workers are lower than those paid to American workers in the same job category.
For example, for systems analysis, programming and computer-related occupations, the H-1B workers reported an average wage of $61,000 annually, while the U.S. workers reported an average wage of $70,000 annually, which was considered a statistically significant difference. Those findings applied to workers ages 18 to 50. The trend was most notable for older IT workers, ages 40 to 50.
GAO said it could not fully analyze the meaning of the wage differences because it needed additional information and analysis of all factors affecting wages.
Overall, the watchdog agency concluded that the H-1B program is ripe for reform.
“Taken together, the multifaceted challenges identified in this report show that the H-1B program, as currently structured, may not be used to its full potential and may be detrimental in some cases,” the GAO report states.
GAO recommended that the Labor Department, which assists in enforcing the H-1B visas, develop and maintain a centralized public Web site where businesses must post notices of their intent to hire H-1B workers.
The notices should specify the job category and work site location noted on the Labor Condition Application and required by statute on current noncentralized postings.
The report made several other recommendations, including advising Congress that it ought to conduct a review of the H-1B program to examine exemptions from the cap, the role of staffing companies, the level of the cap and how the system relates to immigration, among other issues.
GAO said it sought comment from all the agencies affected, including the Homeland Security, Justice, Labor and State departments. Justice supported several of the recommendations, while DHS disagreed with two of them. Labor and State did not respond.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.