Congress must end abuses

While most of the fiery debate over illegal immigration and its impact on jobs in the United States has focused in areas such as the dairy industry, poultry and meat production, farming, construction labor and the service industry, another fight has been brewing in the high-tech computer industry over foreign worker visas.

As reported recently by CBS in a “60 Minutes” episode, the H-1B visa program was created 27 years ago by Congress to allow U.S. companies to bring in foreign workers to fill gaps in the U.S. workforce when highly skilled workers couldn’t be found. But it has been turned into a nightmare by companies that have abused its intent.

Not only have some companies used the H-1B visa program to fire American workers from their computer jobs and bring in younger, cheaper temporary replacements — mostly from India — but they have required the American workers to sit side by side and train those replacements if they want to get severance pay.

Prominent in the “60 Minutes” report was the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, a state-run institution, which dismissed 79 people from its information technology staff last February and brought in cheaper foreign H-1B workers in what “60 Minutes” said was an effort to cut IT costs by an estimated $30 million over the next five years.

The medical center, like other firms, took advantage of a loophole in the law that provided less oversight and regulation if the replacement salary was more than $60,000 annually.

Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison, who was chairman of the congressional committee that authored the bill in 1990, told the news show he was outraged. “The H-1B has been hijacked as the main highway to bring people from abroad and displace Americans,” he said.

President Donald Trump campaigned against visa abuses last year. In April, he directed three federal agencies to crack down on H-1B fraud and abuse and to review the program.

This month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the president to sanction the companies that had set the outsourcing ploy in motion; the group also introduced legislation to close H-1B loopholes, and to overhaul the visa programs by requiring employers to make a good-faith effort to hire American workers before bringing in guest workers. The proposed legislation also would prohibit companies from replacing American workers or from giving preference to visa holders when they are filling open positions.

Those reforms are overdue and highly welcome. There is a purpose and a need for some companies to bring in foreign workers for some highly skilled jobs, but it never should have been used to fire long-time American workers as a cost-cutting measure. Congress should make sure it doesn’t happen again.

— The Journal Times of Racine (Wisc.)