New bill calls for higher pay, fewer visas for H-1B workers

Register now

(Bloomberg) -- A California congressman, backed by U.S. technology companies, is pushing for the House to consider legislation that would narrow the number of eligible candidates for H-1B visas that are awarded to highly skilled foreign workers.

Darrell Issa, a Republican who sponsored the measure, has been told the bill is likely to be considered by the chamber next month, according to spokesman Calvin Moore.

The bill, which would raise the minimum salary requirements for visa applicants from companies that rely on foreigners, unanimously cleared the Judiciary Committee in November and is backed by Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and other technology companies. Similar legislation hasn’t advanced in the Senate and prospects for Congress passing the measure are in doubt as lawmakers debate more pressing immigration issues.

Issa and businesses that back the bill say that H.R. 170 would give U.S. technology companies a better chance of securing visas for their employees to work in the country by reducing the number of applications from Indian technology firms. The H-1B visa program is routinely used to bring computer programmers and software developers to the United States to work for U.S. firms. The largest employers of H-1B workers are outsourcing firms based in India.

Lottery System

Under current rules, the H-1B program allows companies to hire high-skilled workers from overseas, with 85,000 visas available annually. Because the demand exceeds the quota, companies enter a lottery to compete for visas. Issa said Indian technology companies, which generally hire lower-wage, lower-skilled workers than U.S.-based technology firms, have won a disproportionate number of slots because they submit more applications.

“All of the high-tech companies complain that if they were allowed to compete on a true lottery or based on price, that they would get more of the slots,” Issa said.

President Donald Trump has suggested he would favor changes to the visa system -- but not necessarily those being considered by lawmakers. During his campaign, Trump had called the H-1B system a "cheap labor program" that displaces American workers. Unions have also said they want to see lawmakers change the visa program to protect U.S. workers.

A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, didn’t respond to questions about when the measure would be taken up by the House.

The Trump administration has made it more difficult to obtain H-1B visas. The president directed federal agencies to award visas only to "the most skilled and highest-paid" applicants, resulting in fewer applications being approved even after winning a slot in the lottery. The approval rate fell from about 92 percent in August to 82 percent in November, according to data by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Salary Threshold

Issa’s measure would increase the annual salary threshold from $60,000 to at least $90,000 for employers that rely on a high percentage of H-1B workers.

A different immigration issue has dominated congressional discussions: shielding undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Trump said he plans next month to end an Obama-era program that protected them and called on Congress to enact legislation resolving the issue.

Negotiators from both parties have been unable to reach agreement, and the Senate is set to begin floor debate next week in an effort to come up with a bipartisan plan to protect the young immigrants, known as dreamers.

Second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland said the H-1B visa measure should be considered as part of comprehensive immigration legislation, not as a stand-alone bill.

In the Senate, a bill that includes similar changes related to wages, along with an expansion of the number of H-1B visas available, hasn’t gained traction. “It’s not moving too fast,” said bill sponsor Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. Hatch, who has unsuccessfully pushed the measure in previous years, said he hopes to attach it to legislation protecting the young undocumented immigrants.

The best chance of passing H-1B legislation is early this year, said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, a coalition that represents companies and trade associations on immigration. The group supports the Issa and Hatch measures. As the November congressional elections draw closer, lawmakers are less likely to act, he said.

Bloomberg News