May 25, 2003 (08:05 PM EDT)
Politicians Mull H-1B and L-1 Visa Reforms
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
A growing backlash among Tech workers against the use of foreign nationals to fill IT jobs is gaining political steam, with lawmakers proposing changes to visa laws that let companies import IT talent.
U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., took note of the controversy, querying insurance companies in her state about their use of foreign workers on H-1B visas. H-1Bs are general visas that are more restrictive than L-1 visas. Johnson concluded the companies aren't violating the law, but she believes the restrictions should be tightened because of rising U.S. unemployment.
The efforts show that the heavy lobbying of organizations and activists opposed to the use of H-1B and L-1 visas is getting noticed. In the late 1990s, Congress raised the caps on H-1B visas twice after lobbying from the tech industry, which said it couldn't find enough qualified workers. An InformationWeek analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found the unemployment rate among IT workers rose to 5.2% in 2002, from 3.7% in 2001. Mica's office says there are more than 325,000 L-1 visa holders in the United States, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service issued 79,100 H-1B visas in 2002--well below the 195,000 cap, which will drop to 65,000 in 2004.
Activists argue that's not low enough, and those jobs could be filled by U.S. citizens. "This is a complete fraud our government has inflicted on American citizens," says Mike Emmons, who says he was about to lose his job as an IT contractor with Siemens AG to a Tata employee before leaving last year.
The fervor of this backlash puts business-technology managers in an uncomfortable position, as many are committed to cutting costs using low-cost offshore outsourcers. A Siemens spokesman says the company's telecommunications division, where Emmons worked, whittled IT staff from 106 employees to 30 and contracts 12 employees from Tata. Aetna Inc., which responded to Johnson's query, has cut IT staff 13% to 2,500. It employs 13 H-1B visa holders and contracts about 90 workers through India-based Infosys for what a spokesman calls "a contingent, on-demand workforce."
Lawmakers understand that asking companies to use fewer foreign workers is tricky. "We don't want to create a situation where [companies'] costs become so prohibitive that they don't have some alternatives and move the whole operation offshore," Mica says. That's already happening at many large companies. Just last week, Hewlett-Packard said it would continue to slash U.S. jobs while growing operations at its Indian subsidiary.
Photo of U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. by Newscom