President Trump has signed an executive order requiring his agencies to propose new rules covering H-1B visas to “protect the interests of United States workers” (“Trump targets visas for highly skilled workers,” April 19).
While the executive order did not go into specifics of the new policies, what if we were to require U.S. employers of every foreign-born professional worker to pay the foreign worker at least what they pay their U.S. counterparts? And to deposit into a U.S. government fund thousands of dollars that would be used to train U.S. workers? Doesn’t that sound like a program that the Trump administration should propose?
Well, no need; we already have it. For almost 10 years, the H-1B program itself has required employers filing a new and first H-1B extension to pay a U.S. Worker Training Fee. During the past three years, this fee has generated between $130 million and $160 million per year to provide American workers job training for employment in high growth industries.
While we should expand the use of the training funds to target geographic areas where these skills are needed, and to cover the skill sets that are needed, the money to retrain U.S. workers is already there. Moreover, the entire H-1B visa program, including the federal inspectors who ensure that the visas are being used properly, is funded by the companies who hire the foreign-born workers.
The H-1B program is already limited to 65,000 new H-1B visa statuses, per fiscal year, plus 20,000 for individuals with U.S. master’s degrees. Workers who receive H-1B visa statuses can be employed by qualifying employers for up to six years, or until they emerge from the complex green card process.
Each H-1B petition is expensive, costing employers between $6,000 and $10,000 each. The green card process is also full of U.S. worker protections. Employers must pay the H-1B workers at least the wage paid to professional peers at the worksite. It is illegal to shift the costs of the H-1B or the green card process to the foreign-born worker.
But don’t H-1B workers take jobs away from U.S. workers? No. Why would employers use such an expensive program if they could hire qualified U.S. workers? They wouldn’t, and don’t. There are many communities across the country that would not have any physicians were it not for H-1B visas. H-1B holders have gone on to start companies that helped launched the United States into the 21st century.
Between 2015 and 2016, the national unemployment rates for occupations typically filled by H-1B workers varied between 2.6 and 5 percent, depending on the industry sector. The most recent unemployment rate for information technology workers is between 2.9 and 3.1 percent. Our problem isn’t the absence of U. S. jobs, but, rather, who will fill these jobs in the face of an aging U.S. population.
Are there problems with the program that we can fix? Yes. A reasonable criticism of the program is that the top 10 employers of H-1B workers are foreign consulting firms that contract their workers to client companies in the U.S. This is unfair not only to U.S. workers but also to companies who directly employ a much smaller percentage of H-1B workers to perform needed work and whose applications are shoved to the side by the larger consulting firms. This problem needs to be fixed, and there are smart ways to do it without ruining a necessary program.
Reasonable solutions would be easy to implement and would be supported by companies that need skilled workers and by American workers who need financial help becoming trained for the emerging workforce.
Sam Myers and Sarah Peterson are Minneapolis-based immigration lawyers focusing on employment-based immigration.