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Visa program for ‘best and brightest’ also used to fill low-wage jobs

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The H-1B visa program is meant for skilled workers, but businesses such as dude ranches and country clubs have used it to fill more menial jobs.

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When the 320 Guest Ranch in Montana sought a recreation specialist with the swagger to help would-be cowboys and anglers enjoy Big Sky’s natural riches, it didn’t grab a local. Instead, it went abroad, securing a temporary visa for a foreign national.

Around the same time, the Family Academy of Bethesda in Maryland sought a preschool teacher – from overseas. And when Southern Hills Country Club in Oklahoma needed a recreational worker, it got approval to import a foreigner.

In the heated immigration debate, America’s temporary visa program for highly skilled workers often is portrayed as a crucial piston in the nation’s economy, attracting “the best and brightest” immigrants to spur innovation in science, technology and other fields. Under federal rules, the jobs filled by H-1B visa holders must require specialized knowledge and a related bachelor’s degree or higher – or, in some cases, a mix of pertinent education and experience.

In the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Labor approved so-called “labor condition applications” – the first step in the H-1B visa application process – for medical scientists, financial analysts and civil engineers. But department records show it also approved the hiring of foreign workers to fill more quotidian jobs, such as preschool teachers, sports coaches and interns.

A few of the applications approved last year – about 1 percent – sought workers earning less than the U.S. median annual income of $35,089, a Center for Investigative Reporting analysis found. Some jobs paid as little as $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage.

At the 320 Guest Ranch, general manager John Richardson said the H-1B visa holder working for him provides information to guests about activities such as horseback riding, fishing, downhill skiing and jaunts to Yellowstone National Park.

“We weren’t trying to fulfill a specific need,” Richardson said of the Turkish national, whom he declined to identify. The employee worked a summer at the ranch on a cultural exchange visa before returning last fall on an H-1B visa, Richardson said. The ranch promised to pay the worker at least $11 an hour, according to Labor Department records.

“This was someone who had worked for us and exhibited a lot of hospitality-related skills,” he added. “He wanted to come back and learn how a place like ours works and how it would relate when he gets back to Turkey to set up his own business.”

There is no shortage of applicants for such lower-skilled jobs, including for recreation specialists on dude ranches.

The average ranch gets 50 to 100 applications for any open position, said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, an organization based in Cody, Wyoming, that represents more than 100 ranches in the western U.S. and Canada.

“Dude ranches get many, many more applications than they have jobs for recreation specialists," Hodson said. “People want to do it because it’s a great way of life.”

Nick Sidorakis, general manager at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma – which has hosted several U.S. Opens for golf over the years – declined to answer questions about the labor application approved for the recreational worker.

Officials at the Family Academy of Bethesda, a Montessori preschool and child care center in Maryland, did not return calls requesting comment about the preschool teacher for whom a labor application was approved.

Many blame the U.S. Department of Labor, the first line of defense against fraud in the H-1B application process.

“As these examples illustrate, the Department of Labor’s role in the H-1B program should be significantly overhauled to ensure it meets the actual needs in the U.S. labor market, rather than simply employer desires,” said Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Howard University.

President Barack Obama’s recent executive order on immigration reform did not address this issue. Nor did a broad immigration bill now stalled in Congress, even though the version approved by the Senate last year sought to nearly triple the number of new annual temporary work visas to 180,000.

The first step in obtaining approval to import a worker is fairly simple. Employers note job titles and wages when they seek certification with the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration. The agency scans the applications electronically for obvious errors, with a stated goal of returning them to employers within seven working days.

An inspector general’s audit in 1996 said the department lacked adequate authority, allowing employers to manipulate the program and bypass its intent: to provide access to the “best and brightest” workers. Seven years later, another audit found that, in essence, the H-1B is a “rubber stamp” program that has left the nation vulnerable to visa fraud.

“DOL adds nothing substantial to the H-1B program,” the 2003 report from the Labor Department’s inspector general said. “It would be more efficient if the employers filed their applications directly to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services for visa approval.”

But Egan Reich, a Labor Department spokesman, said his agency is hamstrung by red tape. The applications do not include supporting documentation or workers’ names, so officials cannot assess workers’ credentials.

“Congress limited the DOL’s role in reviewing H-1B applications to only obvious errors or inaccuracies,” Reich wrote in an email.

That leaves it up to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the second stop in the employer’s application process, to determine whether the job is a specialty occupation and whether the worker qualifies for the H-1B program. If approved, the worker can apply for a visa with the U.S. State Department.

A Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman declined to discuss why approvals were given for employers to import workers who did not appear to have specialized knowledge.

Over the last four years, the U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted at least eight cases in which technology consulting companies or their executives had more than 600 fraudulent H-1B visa applications approved by federal immigration authorities, court filings show. One of the companies was accused of importing a worker who ended up pumping gas.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston issued a report last month that found that employers were seeking to import workers with a wide variety of skill levels under the H-1B umbrella. Report author Robert Clifford said the problem is the visa program’s objectives are vague.

“You can see why there are a myriad of uses, because you see no clear mandated goal within the admission criteria for the H-1B,” said Clifford, a senior policy analyst at the bank’s New England Public Policy Center. “What is the actual goal of this program?”

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Stephanie Rice.

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.