As it does every year on April 1, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made available tens of thousands of H-1B visas, the kind that allow U.S. businesses to bring highly skilled workers into the country to work, full-time, for up to six years. Since 2004, the number of visas was set at 65,000; two years later, another 20,000 were added for foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities.
By April 7, the government announced that the cap for 2015 was reached. Companies had filed 172,500 H-1B petitions within that time period, meaning that a lottery would be held to determine which businesses would receive the available 85,000 visas.
A brightening economy?
That's a lot of jobs being filled by non-Americans, but even more surprising is the number of petitions filed. Last year, the cap was also reached within the first week – but only 124,000 petitions were filed.
With the domestic employment picture beginning to brighten a bit, some may see this increase in offshore worker demand as a sign of a recovering economy. To many others, however, the issue only highlights how many jobs are going to imported laborers, rather than employing workers here at home.
"Highly specialized knowledge"
The H-1B program, according to the USCIS, is used by businesses to "employ foreign workers in occupations that require highly specialized knowledge in fields such as science, engineering and computer programming." In fact, the list of occupations that have been covered under the program is long and varied, and includes additional job groups, such as medicine and health, economics, therapy, and all levels of education, from kindergarten to the university level. There's even a category for "fashion models of distinguished merit and ability."
While it may be hard to believe that there is a shortage of teachers or therapists in the U.S., the issue pits concerns of employers against those of workers and their supporters. While the latter group may see the H-1B program and its ilk as taking jobs away from Americans, the former obviously disagrees, since the jobs supposedly require a level of expertise unavailable from the domestic labor pool.
Protections for both foreign and domestic workers
The H-1B program has many built-in protections for workers. For the foreign employee, the employer must pay at least the local prevailing wage, as well as other benefits bestowed upon other employees.
For American workers, H-1B workers may not be used to replace striking or locked-out workers, and conditions for the U.S. workforce cannot be negatively affected by the employment of foreign workers.
Despite these protections, charges of paying foreign workers less, at the expense of American workers, persist. UC Davis Computer Science Professor Norman Matloff, for example, claims that loopholes exist in prevailing wage laws that allow H-1B workers to be paid less than their American counterparts.
Will reform help?
At present, immigration reform is addressing the issue of expanding the H-1B program, not tightening its guidelines. This is due to the lobbying efforts of the manufacturing and tech industries, which claim that they cannot grow without access to additional foreign workers, who possess special skills that can't be found in local workers.
Of course, employers are not required to seek qualified American workers, except in special circumstances, before trying to fill positions with H-1B employees, so it is unknown exactly how employers gauge whether or not the local talent won't fit the bill.
As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned recently at a conference in San Francisco, corporations could solve some of this perceived problem by providing training and educational opportunities for U.S. workers. That would definitely be a better solution for unemployed Americans – and, no doubt, for the U.S. economy, as well.
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