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Bill seeks further restrictions on H-1B skilled workers visa program

A Southern California Edison sign outside the San Onofre Nuclear Plant.
Grant Slater/KPCC
Rosemead-based Southern California Edison is one of many U.S. companies that have hired foreign workers under the H-1B skilled worker visa program.

With the topic of U.S. jobs filled by foreign workers fanning the heat of the presidential campaign, there's a new House bill that would restrict a controversial visa program for highly skilled overseas employees.

The H-1B program is widely used by the technology industry and many large U.S. companies to annually bring in tens of thousands of foreigners, many from South Asia. But the program has its detractors.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican representing parts of Orange County and San Diego County, is proposing to change certain exemptions that allow companies to hire more foreign workers when qualified U.S. candidates are not available.

“First and foremost, this bill is about protecting American jobs," Issa said in a statement. 

The program ensures American companies can attract the best talent worldwide, he said. "Unfortunately, in recent years, this important program has become abused and exploited as a loophole for companies to replace American workers with cheaper labor from overseas,” he said.

Issa pointed to what he called abuses by Southern California Edison, the Rosemead-based utility, one of many U.S. companies hiring foreign workers under the H-1B program.

Last year, federal officials investigated two outsourcing firms used by the company to hire foreign workers and found no wrongdoing. The company's hiring practices came under scrutiny in 2014, after Edison announced it would lay off hundreds of workers, including information technology employees. Critics charged some of those workers were replaced by foreign hires.

Issa's bill seeks to change certain exemptions to a cap on the visas as they apply to employers with more than 15 percent of their employees on H-1B visas.

The employers are required to attest they are unable to fill their positions with qualified U.S. workers when they seek more of the H-1B visas.

But companies can bypass the "attestation" requirement if the foreign workers has a master's degree or higher, or is paid more than $60,000 per year.

Issa proposes doing away with the master's degree exemption, and raising the salary cap from $60,000 to $100,000, thus making it harder for companies to add to their H-1B employees.

A large share of H1-B visas go to workers from India. Shikha Bhatnagar, director of the South Asian Network in Artesia, opposes the bill and argues there's a demand for foreign workers. 

"It is my impression that there is a need for bringing in qualified tech professionals from overseas," she said. 

Some H-1B visa critics don’t think the bill goes far enough. John Miano, co-author of a book that takes aim at the program, said lawmakers don’t want to impose too many restrictions on the visas.
“There is too much money being made here," said Miano. "There is a chain of people making money off replacing Americans with foreign workers.”

Miano said since the exemptions in question apply only to companies with a share of H-1B workers above 15 percent, the impact of the bill if it passes would be limited.

The federal government limits the number of H-1B visas to 65,000 each fiscal year. But another 20,000 can be exempted from the cap if the foreigners hold a U.S. master’s degree or higher.

Colleges and universities, related nonprofits and government research organizations can also petition for exemptions from the 65,000 limit when hiring H-1B employees.

Attempts to reform the H-1B program have been pushed by both Republicans and Democrats who argue that the visas allow companies to pay lower wages to foreign workers while displacing U.S. workers.

Issa's bill, which would be taken up by the GOP-controlled House, has seven co-sponsors, including four Democrats.