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Biden’s Dilemma: Appease Labor or Immigrant Groups on H-1B Visas

Salil Choudhary’s American dream started in India. Choudhary completed his degree at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh in the mid-1990s, when political and business leaders were consumed with the pending threat of Y2K. Demand for software programmers who could prevent a worldwide systems meltdown was exploding, but America wasn’t producing enough engineers to meet the need. A few years earlier, in 1990, George H.W. Bush had introduced a new temporary work visa called an H-1B, which allowed companies to hire foreign workers for specialty occupations — jobs requiring “highly specialized knowledge” and a bachelor’s degree. As the turn of the millenium approached, businesses began flocking to the program, and Choudhary became one of tens of thousands of H-1B workers hired to work in the U.S. In 2010, he became a citizen.

Now, more than 20 years after moving to the U.S., he is skeptical of the visa program that brought him here. “It’s a big scam,” Choudhary said.

He isn’t alone in that assessment. I spoke with current and former H-1B holders, U.S. workers, union reps, academics, lobbyists, recruiters and immigration lawyers on both sides of the political spectrum. While they differed on the specifics, many said that the program is used not to fill labor shortages, as corporations insist, but to cut costs. Critics say that businesses regularly game the system to pay H-1B visa holders below market wages, both exploiting foreign workers and stacking the deck against American job seekers.

As a candidate, President Joe Biden promised reform, saying “high skilled temporary visas should not be used to disincentivize recruiting workers already in the U.S. for in-demand occupations.” Now in office, his administration is considering increasing the wages companies have to pay H-1B workers, which would reduce the incentive for companies to hire foreign workers. This summer, it quietly — and unsuccessfully — defended in court a Trump-era rule that would have replaced the lottery system currently used to allocate visas with one that prioritizes the highest-paying jobs. Both Democratic senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa had long been calling for the change, saying in a joint letter that the “H-1B visa program is greatly in need of reform.”

But full scale reform is going to prove tricky for a president who campaigned as a champion for both workers and immigrants. Because while many pro-labor groups say the program lines the pockets of the likes of Google and Facebook at the expense of American workers, immigration advocates, along with business interests, oppose measures to rein it in, saying that doing so will hurt American competitiveness by narrowing access to a badly needed pipeline of high-skilled talent. Politically, H-1B reform is pegging two powerful Democratic constituencies against each other. Meanwhile, getting anything through a sharply divided Congress won’t be easy.

In 2015, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, released a report castigating Walmart for its reliance on the H-1B program “to meet the company’s routine needs for information technology (IT) labor, potentially displacing U.S. workers.” The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), a labor union, has urged Congress not to expand the H1-B program because of “widespread abuse.” (The AFL-CIO declined to comment for this article.)

On the other side, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has said that increasing the wage scale for foreign workers would hurt American businesses. “Especially in an economy like we have now, where there is a skills gaps and jobs that aren’t being fulfilled, I think the H-1B program really helps to address those needs,” said Sharvari Dalal-Dheini, government relations director at AILA.


Though reforms to high-skilled worker programs tend to be overshadowed by more high-profile immigration issues such as protecting Dreamers and creating a path to legalization for undocumented residents, H-1B reform could drastically change the landscape of business and immigration in the U.S. There are roughly 600,000 H-1B visa holders in the country, the vast majority from China and India. Most of these jobs are in tech, but companies can also use the program to hire, say, Spanish-language teachers or doctors with special skills.

So far, Biden has walked a fine political line, not saying too much but embracing some moderate reforms behind the scenes — trying to navigate what Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University calls “a political conundrum for the administration.”

“It seems like Biden is trying to thread the needle here,” said Varun Nikore, president of AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC dedicated to the political mobilization of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “Because not only did he campaign on immigration reform, but he was probably one of the most pro labor candidates, and presidents, we’ve had in a while.”


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