Editorial: Reform visa program for foreign workers

Published Dec. 4, 2015

Global outsourcing firms that are routinely securing large numbers of visas for foreign workers are abusing the system and costing Americans jobs. Congress should tighten the rules for workers' visas, particularly the H-1B program, and ensure that the visas are granted to truly deserving workers with exceptional skills. Anything less fleeces American workers and squeezes small businesses that cannot compete with big personnel firms as they seek visas to retain foreign talent.

H-1B visas were created to allow employers to bring foreign professionals into the United States to fill jobs in areas where skilled Americans were lacking. But instead of supplementing the American workforce, many H-1B visa holders have been supplanting it. The New York Times recently reported that 13 outsourcing companies took nearly one-third of the annual 85,000 H-1B visa allotment in 2014. The firms brought in workers, mostly from India, to work in large American companies such as Disney and Southern California Edison. Some American companies have shamelessly used the visa program to realize greater profits and fired American employees after forcing them to train their less expensive replacements. This kind of exploitation must be stopped.

Small businesses that need the H-1B visa program to keep talented foreign workers are no match for big global outsourcing firms that can afford to pay for thousands of applications. Tata Consultancy Services, for example, submitted at least 14,000 visa applications in 2014, the New York Times reported. It got 5,650 visas approved. A small San Francisco startup sought one visa for a person integral to its operations. The application was denied. At a cost of up to $4,000 per application, it is no wonder small businesses struggle to compete in a process that begs for greater intervention from government officials.

The system used to award workers' visas is broken. The Obama administration should do a better job policing its visa programs to prevent large companies from snapping up visas, which are awarded annually on a first-come, first-serve basis, at the expense of other companies with a legitimate need. Some companies, such as Google and Facebook, are pressuring Congress to expand the annual quota for visas. But that would be irresponsible until lawmakers get a better handle on the entire program. To start, lawmakers should reinstate a $2,000 surcharge on its H-1B applications submitted by large companies. The fee was allowed to lapse in September.

Congress also should consider a bipartisan visa reform bill written by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and co-sponsored by four Democrats, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. The bill would rein in fraud and abuse in visa programs and raise wage requirements. It deserves a full and fair hearing, followed by decisive action that better protects American workers.

The H-1B visa program was created with good intentions, but it has strayed far from its original mission. The ranks of unemployed American professionals who are losing their jobs at the hands of unscrupulous companies that exploit the visa programs are a growing testament to its failure.