Sunday, April 10, 2005

The H-1B visa program and the definition of "high tech work"

Here are some tidbits from an InfoWorld article lamenting new hurdles in attracting foreign high-tech workers to the US under the H-1B visa program that got me to thinking a bit about "outsourcing," "offshoring," and our assumptions about the responsibility of state and capital to grow a productive, socially just, and generationally sustainable indigenous labor force:

As of December [2004], filing fees for H-1B visas have gone up more than 1,000 percent, from $185 to $2,185 per applicant. But you might as well add on another $1,000 for what’s called “premium processing” of the visa application. Premium processing guarantees 15-day turnaround; otherwise, processing can take between four and six months [...] If you think your company can afford to wait six months for some hotshot software engineer, consider this. Last year, as they do each year, 65,000 H-1B visas became available on Oct. 1. When the 65,000 are gone, employers have to wait another 12 months for new visas to become available. All of last year’s visas were spoken for by Oct. 3.

The Washington Post recently had an update on the current H-1B situation:

Last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said it would issue an additional 20,000 visas for highly skilled foreign workers because this year's cap had already been met. All 65,000 of the H-1B visas for this year were filled by U.S. businesses on Oct. 1, the first day of the government's fiscal year. In response to complaints from businesses, Congress in November passed legislation approving the additional visas, saying they should go to graduates of U.S. institutions with an advanced degree. But last month, the immigration agency said the visas could go to anyone with a bachelor's degree, confusing businesses and immigration lawyers. As of yesterday, agency officials said Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget were still reviewing the criteria for the 20,000 visas.

So clearly not just economic decisions about "innovation" and "competitiveness," but political decisions about "homeland security," are at stake here. The Infoworld article also mentioned increased hurdles for obtaining green cards for H-1B employees and argues that "Policies such as these will certainly encourage offshoring":

Why go through the expense — including not just the visa fees but also the legal fees needed to process the visas, the time it takes to get new employees trained and up and running, plus the uncertainty, delays, and lack of permanency of investments you may have made in hiring foreign workers — when you can just contract a company outside our borders and still get most of the benefits of having the best and the brightest working for you?

The Post article implied the same thing — offshoring would increase as H-1B visas became more scarce and more expensive. For some companies this could mean considerable relocation of production -- as the Post reported, for example, at Texas Instruments Inc. "Four percent of the Dallas company's U.S. workforce of 20,000 is on an H-1B visa." So the implicit argument here, from the POV of the business press, is that "offshoring" (outsourcing to firm locations outside the US) is a bad thing. But why do they make this claim? Because offshoring takes jobs away from US workers? Because offshoring removes incentives for training and educating US workers so they too can number among the "best and the brightest"? Neither seem to be considerations of capital in hiring H-1B visa workers (nor of the state in designing its H-1B visa program).

And how about that phrase, "offshoring"? The implication is that US-located firms either "offshore" operations or engage in H-1B visa hiring because they require the "best and the brightest" but can't find them domestically. No mention is made in the Infoworld piece of the differences in labor costs or labor relations between various categories of even highly-skilled high-tech workers. However, the Post alludes to these debates over wages:

Critics of the visa program say employers aren't looking hard enough in the United States and have used the program to import cheaper labor. They accuse these same employers of abusing the program's mandate to pay workers a "prevailing wage." "You can hire a computer programmer and pay $12.50 per hour and that passes muster as prevailing wage," said Ron Hira, a vice president for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, a professional society representing 220,000 engineers. Companies retort that the filing fees to sponsor H-1B visas -- applied toward training for U.S. workers -- have increased from hundreds of dollars to thousands, and that they also have to pay thousands in lawyers' fees and moving expenses.

The H-1B visa program is an interesting phenomenon itself. From the FAQ at the US Citizenship and Information Services web site, we find that such visas are only to be "used by an alien who will be employed temporarily in a specialty occupation or as a fashion model of distinguished merit and ability." Leaving aside the fashion model exemption (we must have difficulty finding the "best and the most beautiful" in the US) we find that a "specialty occupation" is one which "requires theoretical and practical application of a body of specialized knowledge along with at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. For example, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts are specialty occupations."

There's no information here about the rationale behind this program, save for a tidbit indicating that "Certain aliens working on Defense Department projects may remain in H-1B status for 10 years" rather than the customary 6 year limit. This suggests that national security arguments provided one rationale for this program (and provides a chewy contradiction when we consider now the anti-terrorism fears and measures which are apparently slowing down the H-1B bureaucracy). It is likely that "global competitiveness" arguments on behalf of capital provided another. Yet the interesting question of how one category of professional labor is constructed under separate rules from all other workers is still unresolved.

For a view of the various arguments against the intent and operation of the H-1B program, check out which provides some detailed information about the history of the H-1B program from what is apparently a pro-labor and anti-globalization perspective, as evidenced by their links to the progressive Economic Policy Institute and the new union Washington alliance of technology and communication workers (other problematic perspectives, which I haven't seen in evidence at this site, might include anti-immigration and anti-intellectual arguments).

Me personally, I'd like a world where laborers of all wage and skill levels could move as freely around the globe in search of fulfilling work, just as capital moves freely around the globe in search of rapid and massive and risk-free accumulation. I get suspicious when one segment of labor is carved off from another for special privileges, especially when I find myself in the privileged segment. I'd like some sense of why such decisions are being made and who's making them to be present in the publicly-accessible record, including any economic or social assumptions that might have historically been in place when these regulations were passed. Only then can concerned citizens continue to evaluate their political-economy and choose whether or not they want to press for changes.

In this case, looks like the NGO/activist community has put together a pretty rich and vibrant web site -- agree or argue, it's loaded with information and links. The government site is sparse and the trade press view is narrow. It's all fragmentary evidence for us.

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