Originally published Thursday, June 15, 2017 at 05:57a.m.
With the media devoting nonstop attention to alleged Russian hacking in the presidential election, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and former FBI director James Comey’s testimony, zero attention has been given to developments in the White House that could help American workers.
Russia, climate change and FBI rumors consume Capitol Hill insiders; outside the Beltway, people want President Trump to make good on his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order. Across the nation, the order of the day is jobs, not D.C. gossip and fake news.
Among the most frustrating employment roadblocks are the multiple nonimmigrant visas, most notably the H-1B that either keeps Americans from getting jobs or results in their displacement from jobs they already hold. Over the last two years, several headline cases brought visa abuse into the spotlight. Disney’s firing of about 250 Americans stands out as the most egregious case, and was the focus of a 60 Minutes segment titled “You’re Fired.”
Often, H-1B applications are fraud-ridden which adds another level of despair for suddenly unemployed Americans. But, in a positive development, Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley wrote to the Department of Homeland Security to ask what measures, if any, it proposed to take to eliminate H-1B employer misuse.
The DHS response to Sen. Grassley is heartening. Last month, DHS advised that it had begun an investigation into not only Disney’s procedures, but also those at the University of California, San Francisco and Northeast Utilities where the government suspects malfeasance. In FY 2016, DHS conducted more than 10,000 site visits to determine whether H-1B visa-dependent companies are satisfying their legal obligation to make a good faith effort to recruit U.S. workers. Every year, the labor pool absorbs more than 100,000 H-1B visa holders.
For more than two decades, employers have insisted, without offering proof, that not enough qualified Americans are available to fill the tech industry’s job openings. But two Harvard University economists have a more accurate opinion of why employers are so addicted to the H-1B. Lawrence F. Katz said companies like the H-1B program because it expands the pool of applicants which in turn means lower wages and, since they sponsor the workers’ visas, greater control over their employees. The “two big winners,” as Katz identified them, are the workers who come to the U.S. with H-1B visas and companies that employ them. Katz’s Harvard colleague Michael S. Teitelbaum said that, for the industry claiming shortages, it works politically because honesty – more H-1B visas increases corporate profits – wouldn’t.
President Trump’s executive order correctly identified the H-1B problem which he called “widespread abuse in our immigration system” that leads to Americans being fired and replaced by cheaper laborers. But executive orders and investigations are meaningless unless they result in American worker protections. The Obama administration also conducted an H-1B investigation against Southern California Edison which fired 500 Americans, then forced them to train their replacements. But the Labor Department found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Advocates for overdue H-1B reforms hope that the outcome of investigations under President Trump will be different.