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H-1B Visa Program in the Spotlight

April 20, 2017
Plain English Version

Workers protest Disney H-1B policy.

Workers from foreign countries are part of the American labor force. That has always been true. After all, America is a land of immigrants. Most of the time, the workers come in search of a better life.

It is not quite the same for a certain category of workers. These are workers who have jobs waiting for them before they arrive in America. They have the jobs because they have H-1B visas.

The H-1B visas go to people with special skills. By law, these visas should only go to workers who have skills that companies cannot find in the U.S.

Are there problems or abuses? A few. A famous company, Walt Disney, hired H-1B workers. Disney workers showed the H-1B visa workers how they do their jobs. Then the workers returned to their home countries. They did the jobs they learned at Disney at lower wages. In other words, workers, trained by Disney, returned home to replace Disney's American employees. It was a pretty clear violation of the intent of the law.

The program

How does the program work? American companies send in applications. Many more applications come in than the number of visas allowed. The government chooses the winners by lottery. This process would appear to be fair. But the chances of winning get better if companies send in a lot of applications. Your chances of a winning a lottery are better if you buy a lot of tickets.

Most of the workers in the H-1B visa program come from India and China. Firms in India saw a market. They became consultants to U.S. companies. They sent thousands of applications on behalf of these firms. Soon, it was a good business in India.

Some U.S. banks and Wall Street firms wanted skilled mid-level workers. They wanted workers who could manage their complex computer systems. Observers note that the foreign workers earned less than Americans would have.

Silicon Valley had its needs. It wanted workers with special skills. The ones who would help them innovate. They were having a hard time getting these workers.

The H-1B program needed reform.

Donald Trump said, as president, he would change the program. Last week he signed an order. The order said federal agencies would make suggestions about how to improve the program.

He was not specific about what would happen.

Look for changes in the years ahead. In the meantime, the H-1B visa program will continue.

Source: The New York Times April 18, 2017

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