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STEM the Tide: Pair of Conservatives Join Labor’s Call for a Cap on H-1B Visas, Stricter Enforcement

Sessions and Grassley

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Two conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee have developed an unlikely kinship with unions through their support for capping the number of H-1B visas available to U.S. employers.  GOP Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Sessions of Alabama both serve on the committee; Grassley is the chairman and Sessions heads the subcommittee on immigration.  They are currently opposing legislation being pushed by the tech industry which would bump the H-1B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000 annually.  Grassley and Session believe the program “depresses wages and bumps Americans from good jobs.”

Sessions blasted those who abuse the program during testimony:

“Yes, bringing in talent to America is a good thing, but we have no obligation to yield to the lust of big businesses, and these big businesses — the new ones in the high-tech world — are the same moguls that used to run the oil and steel industry.  They all want more profits and lower pay for workers. That’s just what they do.”

Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, testified that his organization supports immigration reform but wants to specifically bar companies from using H-1B visas to replace American workers.  Using an example currently playing out in California, Trumka said:

“When employers like Southern California Edison (SCE) can replace hundreds of steady middle-class jobs with captive guest workers who earn a fraction of the wage for the same work, then we know that our broken immigration system is facilitating a race to the bottom.”

The example used by Trumka and others who testified involves Southern California Edison, a company which has let 500 of its employees go in favor of hiring workers H-1B visa holders from India.  Some of the affected workers claimed that the utility made them train their replacements before letting them go.  

This past week nearly 1,000 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) members in California protested the company and its abuse of the H-1B visa system.  Pat Lavin, spokesman for IBEW Local 47, told the OC Register, “It’s all about greed.”

SCE, one of the main targets of the Senate committee, was invited to testify but refused to attend.  Sen. Grassley noted SCE’s absence, saying, “I thought they would want to defend their actions and explain why U.S. workers have been left high and dry.”

H-1B visa expansion is supported both by the tech industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and 18 other pro-business organizations. Collectively, they sent a letter to the committee arguing companies were having difficulty hiring native-born workers in STEM fields.  But testimony revealed serious concern about this rationale.  Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, questioned the plausibility of labor shortages: “When there is a shortage, wages go up.  So, if there is a demand out there, why haven’t we seen wages increase?”

“The U.S. supply of top performing graduates is large and far exceeds the hiring needs of the STEM industries,” Salzman added, “with only one out of every two new STEM graduates finding STEM jobs.”

Also testifying for the committee was Jay Palmer, a whistleblower who lost his job at Infosys after revealing the company’s H-1B visa abuse.  In 2013, Palmer agreed to a $34 million settlement with the India-based company.  Palmer told the committee:

“I’m here today to talk a little bit about who can’t be here today and talk.  I am the displaced American worker who can’t speak out due to being harassed, blackballed or possibly sued… the one who was forced to sign a non-disparaging remarks agreement in order get a severance package.”

He added that, “I’m the employee that my company chose not to invest in in order to replace me with cheaper labor, cheaper labor that I had to train, train to do my job that I learned over the past 15 or 20 years. They call it knowledge transfer but we all know that’s all an illusion — it’s all about cheaper labor.”

Grassley, along with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, have introduced legislation to increase worker protections, including a requirement to more strictly enforce good-faith efforts to recruit Americans prior to H-1B visas being issued.


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