FAQ: Why Obama may back an H-1B increase even in a recession

If the US president-elect moves quickly to boost basic research funding, the visa issue will be part of the debate

President-Elect Barack Obama has supported the H-1B visa program and wants to make changes to green cards that would help tech firms. There wasn't much said about this issue during the presidential campaign, especially after Wall Street collapsed. It also never came up in the debates between Obama and Republican John McCain. Now we're in a recession and unemployment is rising. Can Obama push ahead on tech-related immigration issues at this time? He might, and in this FAQ, here's an explanation of how that might happen.

Does Obama support the H-1B visa program?

Obama supports the temporary visa program but also wants it reformed. It needs reform. A US Citizenship and Immigration Service report released in October said as many as one-in-five visa applications are either fraudulent or flawed. Some of the problems were egregious, including H-1B visas approved to shell companies.

If that weren't enough, the US Department of Labor added to the evidence of abuse, including a settlement last month requiring a Virginia-based company that also operates an offshore center in India to pay US$1.7 million to 343 employees. Obama says he wants to "hold accountable employers who abuse the system and their workers," ( PDF Page 8 on Obama's tech platform under the section titled: Reform Immigration).

Will Obama increase the H-1B cap?

Obama supports raising the H-1B cap and did so in the US Senate immigration bill in 2007. It would have increased the current 85,000 cap, which includes 20,000 visas set aside for graduates with advanced degrees. The Senate effort, which died in the House, would have allowed increases of up to 180,000 H-1B visas, as well as additional visas for advanced-degree graduates. Obama also continues to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Excuse me, but how can Obama support increasing H-1B visas during a recession? Good question. Tech companies are cutting employees and the recession isn't stopping offshore outsourcing. The largest users of the H-1B visa are India offshore companies. When a US company hires an outsourcing vendor, US workers may be required - if they want their severance - to train their H-1B holding replacements. Moreover, offshoring is increasingly being aimed at higher-level jobs.

Obama has pledged "to stop giving tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas," but he hasn't linked the H-1B visa to this issue. Indian offshore firms are worried he may do so.

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