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How the H-1B visa issue is revealing the scam that is the American Dream

The H-1B visa isnít exactly the symbol of the radical meritocracy that American companies would have you believe.
BY Anandamayee Singh |   31-05-2019

H-1B visa issue

In the Immigration Act of 1990, former President George H.W. Bush signed off on the H-1B visa, opening an avenue for highly specialized and skilled workers to contribute to rapidly growing fields, particularly in technology. The visa program has an annual cap of 65,000 visas for qualified undergraduates, and 20,000 visas for qualified people with Master’s degrees and higher. The infamous lottery system determines the fate of the remaining applicants, vying for a go at the ‘American dream’. Simply put, for specialized workers, the H-1B visa is the golden ticket to work with American companies.

So why is this visa program being discussed heatedly in the news, and what has Trump done to make tech workers panic?

Is Trump changing things bigly?

  • In April 2017, a few months after entering office, Trump signed the Buy American, Hire American order. Among other things, this order asked the U.S. Citizenship and and Immigration Services (USCIS) to favour workers with a U.S. Master’s or higher degree when issuing H-1B visas.
     
  • USCIS suspended premium processing for these visas from September 2018 to February 2019, leaving several workers and companies hanging.
     
  • USCIS also hiked up the fees for visa applications to fund the digitizing the system, which will make the application process easier in the long term.
     
  • The Department of Homeland security has been trying to draft legislation that will end work authorization for H-4 EAD visa holders. This visa is granted to spouses of H-1B holders, and over 100,000 spouses, mainly women have been granted work permits to cope with the expenses of living in areas with exorbitant costs of living.
     
  • Recently, the U.S. State Department announced plans to shorten the length of visas to one year post graduation for Chinese graduates working in high tech fields, which is significant as 52% of all occupations held by H-1B employees are in computer science.
     

These policy changes, some of which are in the making, are purportedly an attempt by the current administration to combat fraud and abuse in the H-1B visa program. Trump has previously called the program “a cheap labour program”. It pains me-- truly, every fiber of my being is revolting-- to say that his simplistic statement is, in fact, largely true.

The ‘cheap labour’ allegation

A New American Economy report shows that H-1B workers actually create jobs for U.S. born workers, as they help push wage and market growth. Sounds like a win-win situation, but in reality, while wages rise for U.S. born workers, H-1B visa holders are paid less than their American counterparts. Despite provisions to protect H-1B employees, giant tech companies have found loopholes based on how much they pay their employees on average.

The Migration Policy Institute found that H-1B dependent companies pay their H-1B employees less and employ less workers with advanced degrees than companies that aren’t H-1B dependent. This payment disparity also significantly affects IT companies offshore , that provide outsourcing services to giant American corporations. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that American companies which outsource work to IT services saved $20,000 a year per worker when they hired Indian citizens instead of Americans.

In short, large tech corporations are cutting corners to ensure that their companies and industries continue growing at the cost of immigrant workers. This is a practice that is, in fact, deeply American. Whether it was slaves building the U.S. by picking cotton, or Asian immigrants working on the transcontinental railroads, the U.S. has a history of expanding their economy on the backs of unpaid or underpaid immigrants and give it the feel-good label of the melting pot.

The ‘melting pot’ narrative is a cover the country’s complete disregard for consequences, and a belief that it is American exceptionalism, and not exploitation that has made the country grow. It is this very ‘melting pot’, that tech giants like Intel, Microsoft and Facebook bank on when lobbying for more relaxed H-1B related policy. They aren’t fighting to protect their workers, but to protect their companies’ bulldozing around to make space for ‘progress’.

So, is Trump the good guy?

No. If that ever ends up being the case, I will wear sock puppets on my hands and communicate solely through them till the end of time.

Although Trump’s policies claim to work against fraud and abuse, the people most affected are the underpaid H-1 Bvisa holders. In particular, these policies are concerning for Indian citizens, as USCIS data shows that ¾ of workers on H-1B visa are Indian passport holders, both in America and offshore. Offshore worker-- largely based in Indian IT companies-- will be significantly impacted by both the fee hike for visa applications, and the call to give priority to graduates from American colleges when issuing visas.

Temporarily suspending premium processing for visas had significant ramifications, as those who aren’t in the country while their H-1B visa is being processed are considered to have abandoned their application. Applicants waiting for their visas could not travel abroad, and once again this especially impacted the employment status of outsourced workers, paid a pittance, doing the lower level jobs that support the massive developments brought about by the tech giants.

The administration’s determination to scrap work authorization for H-4 EAD visa holders is also a pointed move, not towards combatting fraud, but displacing immigrant workers and their families, concentrated in areas with high costs of living. This is particularly egregious as 90% of H-4 EAD visa holders are women, and majorly Indian passport holders. While no concrete legislation has been put in place yet, and the Employment Protection Act allow certain H-4 dependent spouses to work, the administration is relentlessly pushing this matter, much like they did the travel ban. That doesn’t spell a hopeful future for H-4 holders.

Ultimately, the biggest losers in this debate are those applying for the visas. The H-1B visa exploits workers, and denying it may displace this already vulnerable group of people with specialized skills. As usual, the American President is putting America first, benching the very people that pushed the country forward. Perhaps it is time we shake off the bewitching American dream, and see what co-dependent and toxic relationships lie beneath.

 

Related:
Trump Effect: decline in new student enrolments in the U.S.
Open letter from the U.S. to Indian students: #YouBelongHere

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