Immigration is among the top issues during this election cycle, but Republican
presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida both have
their facts wrong when it comes to H1-B visas.
During the Republican debate on Wednesday, both characterized the visa program as damaging to American workers. Rubio defended his support for the I-Squared
bill, which would triple the number of H1-B visas offered annually for
skilled foreign workers, but added
a caveat, calling for companies that want to hire a skilled
worker from overseas to first advertise the job for 180 days to ensure Americans have an opportunity to apply for the job first.
“You also have to prove that you’re going to pay these people more than you
would pay someone else so that you’re not undercutting it by bringing in cheap
labor,” Rubio said during the
The H1-B visa program is capped at 85,000 annually for the entire U.S., so tech
companies like Facebook and Microsoft have lobbied hard in recent years to
expand the program. Technology companies represent the majority of firms that every April race to
apply for the small pool of such visas available through the system, according to
employment site and immigrant labor database MyVisaJobs.com.
Trump is very critical of the temporary work visas, saying on his website that tripling the number of visas “would decimate women and minorities” and calling Rubio the “personal
senator” of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Trump’s site also calls for companies to increase pay for
foreign workers they hire through the system to “force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs
to the existing domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers
in the U.S., instead of flying in cheaper workers from overseas” – a position he reiterated during the Republican debate Wednesday.
But experts say the visa system is not damaging American salaries
or their chance at getting a job in Silicon Valley. Jonathan
Rothwell, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings
Institution, points out that “H1-B
workers are paid at least as well as their American counterparts” and the unemployment
rate for computer workers is not high relative to other occupations. Salaries for tech occupations have also increased faster than wages for other jobs during the past decade despite the use of the
skilled immigrant workers, he says, citing research he completed in 2013.
“Skilled computer jobs are among the hardest to fill and the vacancies stay open
for the longest period of time,” he says, adding that Rubio’s proposal for companies
to wait 180 days is “an absurdly long period of time to wait to fill a skilled
a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the U.S. is not
graduating enough students with skills in science, math and technology to meet
the growing demand for tech company workers – a point confirmed by data from the 2015 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index. The U.S. will need “approximately
1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current
rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical
preeminence in science and technology,” according to the BLS report.
Occupations in science math and technology are projected to grow by
17 percent through 2018, compared with 9.8 percent for other occupations, according to the Department of Commerce.
Data from MyVisaJobs shows that the top 25 companies sponsoring H1-B visa
workers – including Google, Apple and Microsoft – offer foreign workers an
average salary that is competitive with wages offered to Americans for tech
occupations. The national average salary for a software engineer, for instance,
is $90,000, according to employment site Glassdoor.
The H1-B visa system does have its flaws, however. Foreign workers can
become dependent on the company sponsoring them while they apply for full
citizenship, says Neil Ruiz, executive director of the Center for Law,
Economics and Finance at George Washington University. This sponsorship can
make it difficult for workers to seek more competitive pay or a better job
opportunity during that waiting period, which can take “10 years for someone
from China or India, where many foreign tech workers come from,” Ruiz says.
That long waiting period for citizenship is in part due to the U.S. requirement
that “no one nation can represent more than 7.5 percent of green cards every year,”
a limit China and India often reach, says Andy Halataei, senior vice president at the Information Technology Industry
Council trade group.
“We have supported legislation to repeal those caps,” Halataei says, adding that green cards for skilled visa workers “should be awarded
to the most qualified applicants on a first come, first serve basis.”
Halataei says tech companies can advertise a job for 10 months before they fill a position while they wait for the annual pool of H1-B visas to become available – much longer than the job application time period proposed by Rubio.