Column | Nervous tech giants ramp up lobbying

Since Congress created the H-1B in 1990, IT services companies have had things go mostly their way. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics show that the federal government has issued about 1.8 million visas through 2017 to overseas workers that displace or block employment opportunities to experienced, skilled Americans. H-1B visas are valid for three years, are routinely renewed for an additional three years, and routinely lead to citizenship.

But in the Trump White House, the president has ordered tighter H-1B qualifying standards which have put a big league scare into tech giants Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro. In February, USCIS announced that it will require “detailed statements of work or work orders” about the job that would be performed by an H-1B visa holder when employed at a third-party site. Employers will need to file more details, known as requests for evidence (RFE), to confirm why a foreign-born applicant should be given preference over American applicants. Previously, adjudicating immigration officers didn’t have to review third-party contracts, dates or location of precisely where the H-1B visa holder would be employed.

In anticipation of the April 2 H-1B filing date for fiscal 2019, immigration lawyers have criticized USCIS for overly stringent demands, and India’s largest IT service companies have increased their lobbying budgets. A Center for Responsive Politics review showed that Tata increased its lobbying expenses 37 percent to $110,000; Infosys, up by a multiple of four to $200,000; and Wipro, up by five-and-one-half times to $130,000. Indian workers receive 70 percent of the total H-1B visas issued every year – 65,000 go to overseas applicants, and 20,000 are reserved for foreign nationals studying in the U.S. who earn an advanced degree.

The agency defends its more rigorous standards. USCIS noted that it has found “significant employer violations” among H-1B employers which include paying less than the required wage, not paying workers the required wage while they wait for project assignments, and having employees perform non-specialty occupation jobs. In short, IT specialists hire many, but pay little.

Employers cannot point to tangible evidence that they truly need overseas workers. In fact, high-ranking industry officials admit that qualified Americans are readily available. Industry representatives routinely claim that because of a qualified personnel shortage, about 500,000 jobs cannot be filled. But in a moment of rare candor in 2016, then-Infosys Chief Executive Vishal Sikka admitted that if new regulations slowed the flow of Indian cheap labor techs to the U.S., the employers’ solution would be to hire “locally,” meaning American. Sikka: “There are enough universities, enough ability to hire, enough ability to teach.”

At the same time that Sikka confirmed what H-1B critics had been insisting for decades – that no shortage of qualified U.S. tech workers existed – the Business Insider reported that HP cut 55,000 jobs between 2012 and 2016; yet, the company filed more than 2,000 labor condition applications for H-1B visas. And CNBC’s story, “Silicon Valley: Much young talent, many fewer jobs,” reported that at San Francisco’s annual Internapalooza, more than 5,000 college-age students showed up hoping to get a chance at a Silicon Valley job, evidence that an abundant supply of young talent is available.

Understanding why employers love the H-1B visa is easy – it expands the applicant pool which, in turn, allows them to pay less in salaries.