Immigration glut?

As the economy has turned sour and high-tech firms have shut their doors or announced mass layoffs, thousands of foreign-born workers holding H-1B visas have lost their jobs and thus their right to remain in the U.S. Many must now return to their home countries.

At the same time, thousands of workers are still receiving new H-1B visas, allowing them to come to the U.S. for employment. Foreigners can obtain the immigration visas if employers sponsor them for skilled jobs.

To Abid Adebi, CEO of The Adea Group, the result is a very poor trade for the U.S.: We are, in effect, swapping trained workers for untrained ones, he says.

"We have already spent the time and energy to train these people in the American ways of doing things. Rather than bring new people, I'd rather see an extension for the people who are already here," says Adebi. His Dallas-based firm, which recruits and provides IT talent to businesses in the Southwest, employs some 600 people, nearly half of whom are H-1B visa holders.

Less than a year ago, at the urging of the IT industry, Congress increased the number of H-1B visas from 115,000 to 195,000 per year through 2003 after having raised it from 65,000 just two years earlier. The argument for doing so was that the U.S. faced an enormous skills gap that could be filled only by importing talent from abroad.

But it seems like a different era now. With more available workers and fewer job openings, the increased visa numbers look hopelessly outdated.

"Across IT, [employers] have for the first time been able to be very choosy and not just take anybody who could spell Java," says Adebi. "At this time, we have a glut of people with H-1Bs with nowhere to go."

Adebi, who came to the U.S. 20 years ago and has since become a citizen, says he empathizes with the visa holders who are suddenly finding themselves jobless and homeless.

The average age of the H-1B workers he employs is 25, Adebi says. "Most of them don't really know how to deal with a downturn," he explains. "These people walked into an US$80,000 job, and all of a sudden, it's completely changed."

Detractors have argued all along that IT employers had no need for the increased visa quota. The true impetus for the call for immigrant workers, they say, was to drive down IT wages, especially at software firms, which employ the largest number of H-1B applications in IT.

Regardless, H-1B visa holders perhaps as many as half a million in the U.S. today are stuck between a rock and a hard place if they're downsized out of a job. For starters, they're easier to fire, since they're legally "at-will" employees. In addition, any new jobs they take must meet the requirements of H-1B visa rules, which state that H-1B holders must work at specialty occupations only.

New portability rules have made things easier, however, by allowing them to start a new job without applying for a new visa.

Worst of all, is that for many visa holders, their employers were helping them through the citizenship process. Many H-1B holders are racing the clock to receive permanent status within the three years before their temporary visas expire. Without an employer's sponsorship, that becomes very unlikely.

Meanwhile, as Adebi points out, 195,000 new H-1B visas could be handed out this year, although so far, the actual numbers have been lower than the cap.

Lowering that cap, however, seems a tough sell, despite the economic downturn. For one thing, politicians are beginning to sense the impossibility of keeping pace with the volatile marketplace for high-tech workers. The bump to 195,000 probably came two years later than the need for the workers and may have exacerbated what some see as a worker glut. Another change might come back to haunt legislators in the same way.

In fact, while IT managers contacted for this article were reluctant to speak in favor of maintaining the increased H-1B cap of 195,000, none was willing to speak in favor of reducing the cap, either.

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