By Eleanor Pelta, AILA First Vice President
H-1B workers certainly seem to be under fire these days on many fronts. A new memo issued by USCIS on the employer-employee relationship imposes new extra-regulatory regulations on the types of activities in which H-1B workers can engage as well as the types of enterprises that can petition for H-1B workers. The memo targets the consulting industry directly, deftly slips in a new concept that seems to prohibit H-1B petitions for employer-owners of businesses, and will surely constitute an open invitation to the Service Centers to hit H-1B petitioners with a new slew of kitchen-sink RFE’s. On another front, USCIS continues to make unannounced H-1B site visits, often repeatedly to the same employer. Apart from the “in-terrorem” impact of such visits, I personally cannot see the utility of three different visits to the same employer, particularly after the first one or two visits show that the employer is fully compliant.
But USCIS isn’t the only agency that is rigorously targeting H-1B’s. An AILA member recently reported that CBP pulled newly-arrived Indian nationals holding H-1B visas out of an immigration inspection line and reportedly placed them in Expedited Removal. The legal basis of those actions is still unclear.
Finally, recent H-1B “skirmishes” include various U.S. consular posts in India issuing “pink letters” that are, simply put, consular “RFE’s” appearing to question the bona fides of the H-1B and requesting information on a host of truly repetitive and/or irrelevant topics. Much of the information that is routinely requested on a pink letter is already in the copy of the H-1B visa petition. Some of the letters request payroll information for all employees of the sponsoring company, a ridiculous request in most instances, particularly for major multi-national companies. One of the most frustrating actions we are seeing from consular officers in this context is the checking off or highlighting of every single category of additional information on the form letter, whether directly applicable or not, in effect a “paper wall” that must be overcome before an applicant can have the H-1B visa issued. Very discouraging to both employer and employee.
How have we come to a point in time where the H-1B category in and of itself is so disdained and mistrusted? Of course I’m aware that instances of fraud have cast this category in a bad light. But I think that vehemence of the administrative attack on the H-1B category is so disproportionate to the actual statistics about fraud. And interestingly, the disproportionate heavy-handed administrative reaction comes not from the agency specifically tasked with H-1B enforcement—the Department of Labor—but from CIS, CBP and State. Sometimes I just have to shake my head and ask myself what makes people so darn angry about a visa category that, at bottom, is designed to bring in relatively tiny number of really smart people to work in U.S. businesses of any size. It has to be a reaction against something else.
Yes, a great number of IT consultants come to the US on H-1B’s. It is important to remember that so many of these individuals are extremely well-educated, capable people, working in an industry in which there are a large number of high profile players. And arguably, the high profile consulting companies have the most at stake if they do not focus on compliance, as they are the easiest enforcement target and they need their business model to work in the U.S. in order to survive. Some people may not like the business model, although arguably IT consulting companies provide needed services that allow US businesses, such as banks and insurance companies to focus on their own core strengths. Like it or not, though, this business model is perfectly legal under current law, and the agencies that enforce our immigration laws have no business trying to eviscerate it by policy or a pattern of discretionary actions.
It is true that some IT consulting companies’ practices have been the focus of fraud investigations. But DOL has stringent rules in place to deal with the bad guys. Benching H-1B workers without pay, paying below the prevailing wage, sending H-1B workers on long-term assignments to a site not covered by an LCA—these are the practices we most often hear about, and every single one of these is a violation of an existing regulation that could be enforced by the Department of Labor. When an employer violates wage and hour rules, DOL investigates the practices and enforces the regulations against that employer. But no one shuts down an entire industry as a result.
And the IT consulting industry is not the only user of the H-1B visa. Let’s not forget how many other critical fields use H-1B workers. In my own career alone, I have seen H-1B petitions for nanoscientists, ornithologists, CEO’s of significant not for profit organizations, teachers, applied mathematicians, risk analysts, professionals involved in pharmaceutical research and development, automotive designers, international legal experts, film editors, microimaging engineers. H-1B’s are valuable to small and large businesses alike, arguably even more to that emerging business that needs one key expert to develop a new product or service and get the business off the ground.
The assault on H-1B’s is not only offensive, it’s dangerous. Here’s why:
- H-1B’s create jobs—statistics show that 5 jobs are created in the U.S. for every H-1B worker hired. An administrative clamp-down in the program will hinder this job creation. And think about the valuable sharing of skills and expertise between H-1B workers and U.S. workers—this is lost when companies are discouraged from using the program.
- The anti-H-1B assault dissuades large businesses from conducting research and development in the US, and encourages the relocation of those facilities in jurisdictions that are friendlier to foreign professionals.
- The anti-H-1B assault chills the formation of small businesses in the US, particularly in emerging technologies. This will most certainly be one of the long-term results of USCIS’ most recent memo.
- The attack on H-1B’s offends our friends and allies in the world. An example: Earlier this year India –one of the U.S.’s closest allies –announced new visa restrictions on foreign nationals working there. Surely the treatment of Indian national H-1B workers at the hands of our agencies involved in the immigration process would not have escaped the attention of the Indian government as they issued their own restrictions.
- The increasing challenges in the H-1B program may have the effect of encouraging foreign students who were educated in the U.S. to seek permanent positions elsewhere.
Whatever the cause of the visceral reaction against H-1B workers might be—whether it stems from a fear that fraud will become more widespread or whether it is simply a broader reaction against foreign workers that often raises its head during any down economy –I sincerely hope that the agencies are able to gain some perspective on the program that allows them to treat legitimate H-1B employers and employees with the respect they deserve and to effectively enforce against those who are non-compliant, rather than casting a wide net and treating all H-1B users as abusers.