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After 20 years of the H-1B visa, a mixed legacy

A worker at the keyboard, June 2010
A worker at the keyboard, June 2010
Photo by MoDOT Photos/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Does anyone know that it's the 20th anniversary of the H-1B visa? The tech reporters at Computerworld do. The magazine has produced a special report on the temporary work visa used to bring over highly skilled foreign workers, many employed in the technology industry.

The report is educational and at times critical of the visa program, which its detractors have blamed for the displacement of native-born professionals and linked to the offshore outsourcing of U.S. jobs. From the introductory news analysis:

Over the years, supporters of the visa have included Microsoft's Bill Gates and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in 2009 told Congress that the annual visa cap of 85,000 is "too small to meet the need" and that protecting U.S. IT workers from global competition creates a "privileged elite."

Groups like the Economic Policy Institute have begged to differ. In a report released just last month by EPI researcher Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he argues that the H-1B along with the L-1 visa, which is used by multinational firms to transfer employees for temporary work, allow employers to bypass U.S. workers "when recruiting for open positions and even [to] replace outright existing American workers" with visa-holding foreigners.

The H-1B's wage requirements are too low, according to the report, and because visas are held by employers, not workers, the H-1B promotes a relationship "akin to indentured servitude."

A series of first-person interviews brings together different perspectives, including those of visa holders from India. There is also a nifty interactive map showing where H-1B visa requests are concentrated throughout the United States. It's an illuminating read on the immigration policies affecting the foreign workers we hear so little about.