H-1B Advocates Caution Against Revamping High-Skill Visa Program

Replacing the visa lottery system frequently used by the tech industry to hire high-skilled foreign workers would reduce the ability of U.S. companies to innovate and create jobs, according to a report published Thursday by the National Foundation for American Policy.

The report from the Arlington, Va.-based immigration research group also said that any rule replacing the current setup would do little to decrease the outsourcing of American jobs.

Members of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team are considering replacing the H-1B visa lottery system with one that awards visas to employers with the highest-salaried positions, according to a Jan. 12 Reuters article citing unnamed sources.

“Imposing a vast array of new rules on companies employing high-skilled foreign nationals would contradict Donald Trump and the Republican Congress’ expressed desire to loosen the regulatory reins that have been blamed for slow growth in the U.S. economy,” NFAP Executive Director Stuart Anderson said Thursday on a conference call with reporters.

The report also said the next administration should not roll back the Obama administration’s March regulation on Optional Practical Training, which allows international students educated in science, technology, engineering or math to extend their employment and stay in the country.

Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

Most of the 65,000 visas provided annually through the H-1B program are awarded to outsourcing firms. Critics such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general, say the visas are primarily used by companies to outsource lower-level technology jobs to workers who may work for lower wages.

The NFAP report, however, said most companies make decisions about hiring outside contractors after they’ve decided to outsource or lay off employees. H-1B visas play a minor to nonexistent role in the process, and in most cases layoffs would have happened anyway, according to the report.

Researchers looked at South California Edison Co. and The Walt Disney Co., which both had high-profile layoffs followed by the presence of foreign nationals on site, according to the report. In both cases, the companies’ decisions would not have changed if H-1B policies were different, the report said.

Advocates of work visas say a change to the H-1B allotment process would severely limit the ability of mid-level tech companies to hire top-tier talent. “By focusing only on wages, you’re really going to cut needed workers out of the equation,” said Blake Chisam, a former senior staffer on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, during the press call.

Chisam, who’s now a partner at the Fragomen immigration law firm, said changing the program would hurt smaller business that don’t normally pay as much, and it would keep younger, less-established talent out of the system.

Despite the purported benefits to the U.S. economy, there are challenges to selling the H-1B program to a skeptical American electorate, according to Randel Johnson, the head of immigration, labor and benefits policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Johnson, also a former House staffer, said on Thursday’s call that it will be important for pro-H-1B lobbyists to communicate to some lawmakers that taking a tough vote against new H-1B restrictions will ultimately better serve their district.

“I think the biggest problem with your report is we can’t reduce it down to a tweet,” he said.

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