2018 Prediction #5 -- The H-1B visa problem will NOT go away

I’m sorry this year’s predictions seem to this point to mainly have to do with policies rather than products, but I don’t get to make the future, just predict it, and in this case I’m predicting that immigration reform will have little actual effect on H-1B visa abuse.

For those of you who aren’t already asleep I’ll start with the Cliff Notes version of the H-1B issue, which I have written about ad nauseam as you can read here (notice there are three pages of columns, so dig deep). H-1B is a U.S. immigration program to allow 65,000 foreign workers into the USA each year for up to six years, which means that at any moment there are almost 400,000 of these folks working at the desk next to yours. Some people claim that H-1Bs take jobs better filled by U.S. citizens and some feel that H-1Bs are essential for the functioning of technology industries that would otherwise be devoid of needed talent. I am clearly on the side of the former folks who see H-1Bs as a scam intended to take jobs away from, well, me.

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Few people who like to express opinions about the H-1B program actually understand it. That’s in part because both industry and government tend to lie a lot. Lying in this case isn’t strictly a Trump thing, either: the Obama Administration lied about H-1Bs, too. One lie commonly told about H-1Bs is that the visas are for geniuses whose unparalleled abilities mean we as a nation absolutely must have them working here. That’s not true. There IS such a visa but it’s an O-1 Extraordinary Ability Worker Visa, not an H-1B. If these H-1B folks were actually so accomplished they’d come to work here as O-1s, which are unlimited in number.

Rather than being supremely accomplished, H-1Bs are just supposed to be competent and able to do jobs for which U.S. citizen candidates can provably not be found.  Say a company needs an IT specialist, for example, and finds that it can’t somehow recruit any U.S. citizens for the position despite extensive outreach and advertising. In that case if a comparably skilled H-1B candidate is available they can get the job. The more common trend, however, is for a company to really prefer H-1Bs over U.S. citizens because they tend to work for less money and absolutely work for lower benefits, so zealous human resource people, often working with consultants, manage to write job descriptions that preclude U.S. citizens and/or bury the announcements such that qualified U.S. candidates never know they even exist. This, too, is a form of lying.

One more lie is that we even have a shortage of technical workers (this is what the Obama Administration liked to claim). What we have is a shortage of technical workers who will accept shit wages.

Another mistake that often comes up in H-1B discussions is the difficulty H-1Bs have in getting green cards (permanent resident status) or applying for citizenship. Some critics think H-1Bs are being discriminated against in these regards. And lo, this is true, but that’s because the H-1B visa program has always been for candidates not on a permanent residence or citizenship path. It’s not like these people come to work in the USA thinking they’ll become citizens or get green cards at some point: the program specifically and always has precluded that. Want to become a U.S. citizens? Then try for a different visa like an EB-1,2,3,4 or 5.

Immigration reform is coming, we’re told, and the Trump campaign said a lot about H-1Bs, especially about eliminating the lottery system that is used to allocate those 65,000 yearly slots. About half of those slots have gone to foreign outsourcing companies, especially from India.

Once the H-1B reform legislation appears I think we can expect the lottery to go away in favor of a system based strictly on worker qualifications and the dire need to fill the position, which sounds egalitarian and terrific, eh? Probably not.

You see the point of this H-1B reform will be mainly to get rid of the Indian outsourcers so their H-1B slots can be used by American companies hiring directly. It’s for this reason that the Indian companies are hiring U.S. citizens as fast as they can. And the U.S. companies are preparing, too, by practicing all those techniques that will allow them to appear to seek qualified domestic candidates and yet not find them. Toward that end, for example, I’m hearing that one big company that rhymes with IBM is starting to use recruiters whose native language is not English. This is not to say that non-native speakers can’t learn wonderful English or be consummate H.R. professionals, but the track record of big companies that rhyme with IBM is not good in this area.

For all their billions in profits (and billions more in repatriated profits) these companies, which include biggies like Apple and Google, just can’t seem to bring themselves to pay market rates for labor if they can wriggle out of doing so. The Trump Administration sure isn’t going to make them do it, either. And for these reasons I predict that the H-1B visa program may change in 2018 but its problems will remain pretty much the same.