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How Obama’s immigration plan will help skilled workers who hold visas

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks on his executive action on immigration on Nov. 21 at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.

Credit: Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

For advocates representing skilled-worker immigrants, President Barack Obama’s recent immigration reforms were a long-awaited answer to their complaints that America’s visa system encourages entrapment, coercion and wage theft.

The executive actions came three weeks after The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed details of financial and other abuse of Indian high-tech workers in the temporary visa program known as H-1B.

While coverage of the reforms has focused primarily on border security and steps to legalization, Obama’s actions also address skilled workers here on visas. They increase the number of available visas of various types, allow some spouses of H-1B workers to find jobs in the U.S. and expand a program in which foreign graduates of U.S. universities gain work experience here.

His reforms also make it easier for work visa holders to switch jobs and for the U.S. Department of Labor to crack down on employers that mistreat skilled immigrant employees. They reinforce immigration protections for foreign workers duped by the ranks of labor contractors that CIR found proliferate in America’s tech industry.

Aman Kapoor, leader of Immigration Voice, which represents highly skilled foreign workers in the U.S., including Indian tech engineers, said CIR’s articles helped him “illustrate what was going on” in conversations with White House and Department of Homeland Security officials.

“It was helpful to emphasize this is not just a concept: It is real,” Kapoor said. “It is exploitation of immigrants.”

The CIR stories rolled out as disparate groups were winding up their months long campaigns to persuade the Obama administration to consider the rights of skilled workers.

The International Labor Recruitment Working Group, a coalition of labor and human rights organizations, sent a letter to Obama earlier in November asking for more protections for foreign workers. It referenced CIR’s investigation.

Obama’s executive actions included at least two reforms requested in the letter.

One calls for immigration and labor agencies to join forces in a working group focused on improving enforcement of labor, immigration and employment laws. Agencies such as the Labor, Homeland Security and Justice departments together will develop new rules and policies. The working group also will encourage workers to cooperate with the appropriate law enforcement authorities “without fear of retaliation,” according to the Labor Department’s website.

The second measure would provide visas to workers who blow the whistle on human trafficking or abusive employers.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in early 2015 will expand the list of crimes that allow foreign laborers to qualify for U visas, for immigrants who are victims of criminal activity. The agency also will start approving applications for T visas, for those who help law enforcement investigate or prosecute human trafficking.

CIR’s investigation found that legal loopholes allow labor brokers and other firms that rely on the H-1B work visa program to coerce workers with the threat of lawsuits. Some of these employers lure workers to the U.S. with phantom jobs, demand cash for visas, pressure workers to sign coercive employment contracts and fail to pay promised wages.

The federal government nonetheless subsidized some of the worst abusers with lucrative government tech contracts.

Congress created the H-1B visa program in 1990 to allow U.S. companies to hire foreigners for jobs requiring highly specialized skills. Now, an estimated 840,000 foreign citizens reside in the U.S. on  temporary visas.

Technology firms make up about half of the approved visa applications, the first step toward obtaining the documents. The top applicants are Indian-owned staffing firms that contract out workers for programming and other technology jobs in the U.S.

Silicon Valley tech companies such as Facebook have pledged tens of millions of dollars to lobbying groups such as FWD.us in hopes of tripling the number of annual H-1B work visas to 180,000.

Inadequate and inconsistent enforcement by the Labor Department, along with the threat of deportation under H-1B visa rules, have made workers fearful of speaking out about the problems. CIR contacted thousands of workers before finding a few dozen who would discuss their abuse.

One immigrant programmer referred to the visa program, and labor brokers that depend upon it, as “an ecosystem of fear.”

Software product manager Vikram Desai invited friends to his suburban Philadelphia home for a Nov. 20 party to watch Obama’s speech detailing the reforms.

“My wife and I hugged. There were fists bumps. People poured shots,” Desai said. “One woman broke down and was crying.”

In interviews, workers and advocates said an important step toward further improving the skilled-worker visa system would be giving immigrants more control over their own visa paperwork.

Obama’s executive actions begin that transition by allowing some visa holders to transfer applications for residency permits, or “green cards,” from one job to another. Typically, workers on temporary work visas who hope to gain more permanency with a green card have to restart the cumbersome application process if they change jobs.

“Although the system is still not clean, this will go a long way in addressing the abuses in the system,” said Kapoor, of Immigration Voice, speaking by phone from Las Vegas, where Obama was giving an immigration speech.

“I’m an immigrant,” Kapoor said. “And we want companies to hire immigrants for the right reasons – because of their skills – not for the wrong reasons: because they can exploit them.”

Leading up to Obama’s executive actions, some policymakers said the CIR investigation had identified key areas long in need of attention.

“This report underscores the critical need to make reforms to the H1-B program,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration rules. “For years, I have been pushing to close loopholes in our immigration laws that allow the types of abuses detailed in The Center for Investigative Reporting’s findings.”

Russell Harrison, director of government relations for IEEE-USA, which represents more than 200,000 engineers and other computing and technology workers, said he hopes the immigration debate reopened by Obama’s actions yields better protections for U.S. and immigrant workers.

Harrison’s organization favors giving permanent residency green cards to skilled immigrant workers, rather than temporary H-1B visas that bind them to a single company. Employers sometimes will favor foreign workers over U.S. citizens, he said, because visa holders are easier to control.

Although he said Obama’s executive actions fall short of excising exploitation from America’s skilled-worker visa programs, “we are absolutely ecstatic that someone is finally paying attention to these programs and paying attention to what’s going on.”

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Matt Smith can be reached at msmith@cironline.org, and Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@cironline.org. Follow Gollan on Twitter: @jennifergollan.