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Alarming New Policy to Destroy H-1B Visa Data Will Stifle Research on Wages, Immigration

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A surprising and disconcerting change in data policy will make determining how H-1B visas affect American workers and the economy much more difficult. Data relating to the visas will now be destroyed after five years. 

The change in policy was approved last year by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) but went largely unnoticed until the Department of Labor (DOL) posted a note about it on their website last week.  The records, known as Labor Condition Applications (LCA), provide data on each H-1B employer, worksite, and the wages paid to each worker.  Given that there is no explanation for the change in policy, some researchers believe lobbyists secretly influenced NARA in order to limit research opportunities.
Lindsay Lowell, Director of Policy Studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, told Computer World:

“Throwing information away is anathema to the pursuit of knowledge and akin to willful stupidity or, worse, defacing Buddhist statue.  It undermines our ability to evaluate what the government does and, in today’s world, retaining electronic records like the LCA is next to costless.

LCA records are useful to people on all sides of the H-1B issue, not just researchers, making the decision even more puzzling.  The five year period is incredibly questionable considering H-1B visas last six years with a one-time, three-year renewal option.  Neil Ruiz, a researcher at The Brookings Institution, called the move “unfortunate, given that these are the only publicly available records for researchers to analyze on the demand by employers for H-1B visas with detail information on work locations.”

Lawyer John Miano, who founded the programmers guild, often uses LCA data in court to challenge visa policies.  He also found the change in retention policy problematic:

“The problem we face when doing analyses of the H-1B program is a lack of data,” Miano said. “The reality is we can only study where we have data,” and if the range of data is restricted, it “severely restricts what can be studied.”

As one might expect, this is not the first time researchers have taken issue with American visa record-keeping policy.  Immigration records are often labeled archaic and error-ridden, preventing proper research.   Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute, said of the change in policy: “Getting good data on the H-1B, and other visa categories, is a serious issue for researchers.”

Troubling barriers to information exist from department to department, Costa explained to Computer World:

While the Labor Department’s LCA data “has generally been good,” getting more accurate data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS ) takes a Freedom of Information Act request, which is a lengthy and uncertain process, Costa said.

USCIS data isn’t all that great once you get it, Costa said, “because USCIS is a national embarrassment in terms of its data collection, in part because it’s a paper-based agency that’s living in the stone ages.”


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