This summer, President Trump sent shock waves through America’s tech sector — by suspending most guest worker visas through the end of the year.
Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft all condemned the moratorium, which affects the H-1B visas that big tech firms use to hire foreign workers. Apple’s Tim Cook was “deeply disappointed.” Twitter called it “short-sighted.”
Tech companies cloaked their objections with appeals to diversity and economic competitiveness. But in reality, they’re worried solely about their bottom lines. Congress created the H-1B program in 1990 to help companies recruit skilled foreign workers “when there is a shortage of qualified workers in the country.” But all too often, companies have circumvented the program’s weak safeguards to import cheaper, less qualified foreigners — even when plenty of qualified Americans were available for hire.
Especially now, with the unemployment rate above 10 percent, the notion of a “skilled worker” shortfall is laughable.
For years, tech companies have insisted there’s a “STEM shortage” — a desperate lack of people trained in science, technology, engineering and math.
But as Rutgers Professor Hal Salzman has testified to Congress, that’s a myth. We graduate about twice as many STEM students as there are STEM jobs for them each year. In fact, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari dismissed the whole concept of a STEM worker shortage, noting that, “‘skills gap’ is just a euphemism for ‘we want skills at lower wages.’”
So if there’s no shortage of graduates, and Americans are willing to do the work, why is Big Tech obsessed with H-1B visas? One word: money.
The 1990 Immigration Act required that employers pay H-1B visa holders the same as American workers in the same roles with equivalent qualifications. But a 1998 amendment nullified that requirement if the visa holder has a master’s degree or makes more than $60,000 a year. For most STEM jobs, especially in high cost-of-living areas like Silicon Valley, that’s an easy threshold to clear.
U.S. immigration officials also largely rely on employers’ self-assessments of prevailing wages. As a result, corporations get away with paying H-1B workers less than their American counterparts. Fully 60 percent of H-1B visa holders earned less than the average wage for their occupation in 2019.
Corporations also prize H-1B workers for their pliability. H-1B visas are employer-sponsored, which means the company, not the worker, applies for the visa by certifying a need and supplying supporting documentation. As a result, H-1B workers’ visas are usually only valid if they remain with that company.
This gives employers enormous leverage over foreign workers. Many H-1B recipients work 12- or 14-hour days without overtime pay. And, for most guest workers, the fear of firing or retaliation is strong enough to keep them from speaking out against such abuse.
Former Congressman Bruce Morrison — one of the architects of the H-1B program — went so far as to call this system “a low-cost, high retention indentured servant model.”
And the Department of Labor has done little to keep the program in check. As its inspector general said, the department is known to “rubber stamp” visa applications with little review or enforcement whatsoever. Only recently, under President Trump and Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia, has the department promised more rigorous vetting.
To be sure, that’s a step in the right direction. And a new rule from the Department of Homeland Security — which boosts DHS enforcement of the H-1B program, tightens the definition of “specialty occupation,” and updates prevailing wage levels — proves the president is serious about bringing about real reform.
Let’s hope his administration continues on that track. Fixing this bear of a program is long overdue.
The H-1B visa program has been abused for years. President Trump’s decision to suspend it produced howls of outrage from Silicon Valley CEOs, but ordinary Americans shouldn’t fall for Big Business’s spin.
Ryan Girdusky is the author of “They’re Not Listening, How the Elites Created the National Populist Revolution“