Biden’s H-1B Conundrum

“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.”

“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.”

“Proponents of the H1-B program say that U.S. firms need access to foreign STEM talent in order to remain competitive, an argument that hinges on the existence of a domestic labor shortage in the tech world. Unemployment in the tech sector is significantly lower than it is for the economy overall, which business groups say is evidence that domestic tech workers are doing pretty well and foreign workers are mostly filling demand above and beyond what the domestic workforce can supply.

The problem is, historically it’s not clear that there has been a labor shortage in tech. Skeptics point to the fact that median wages in the sector haven’t increased everywhere in the country, or all that dramatically. “What happens when there’s something in short supply?” said Ron Hira, an associate professor of political science at Howard University and research associate with the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “You have a price mechanism. In this case, it would be wages. So, anything in shortage you’d see wages going through the roof.” The fact that there haven’t been dramatic wage spikes, he says, suggests that claims of labor shortages in the U.S. are overblown.

Instead, Hira and others believe that corporations have become accustomed to paying below market wages through use of the H1-B program. Employers are required to pay H-1B workers the higher of either the actual wage paid to a worker in a comparable role at their company, or the average wage for similar workers based on occupation, geography and experience. Employers select this “prevailing wage” from four levels set by the Department of Labor.

But an analysis by EPI found that, in 2019, employers certified 60 percent of all H-1B jobs at the two lowest levels — leading to questions about whether corporations were classifying these jobs at artificially low levels to avoid paying higher wages.”

“Wages can be pushed down by other factors, too. H-1B visas are held by employers, which means there are restrictions on the free movement of labor. Foreign workers can’t simply leave the company if their wages aren’t competitive. “I felt like I had no option to negotiate whatsoever,” said a Pleasanton, Calif.-based former H-1B worker and now-green card holder who didn’t want to be identified for fear of professional repercussions. He guesses he was paid 25 to 35 percent less than his domestic counterparts as an H-1B worker.

“People who have been here for 10 years, or even some people who were born and brought up here who’ve been in good jobs making six figures, suddenly they’re losing their jobs just because [their employers] found somebody from India who would do it for $50,000,” said Choudhary.”

“Some argue that the H1-B visa program lifts all boats: There is research showing that an increase in foreign STEM workers as a share of a city’s total employment increases wages for domestic workers more broadly. But for many workers, any aggregate benefits of the program are far outweighed by the costs. In 2015, Disney famously fired over 200 U.S. workers, some of whom said they were made to train their H1-B-holder replacements.”

“One of the biggest arguments made by tech and other companies against making it harder for foreigners to come in on an H-1B visa is that it would dissuade the “best and brightest” from coming to the U.S. But several of the people I spoke with said that’s not always the case. “It’s a mixed bag,” said the Pleasanton, Calif.-based former H-1B worker about the caliber of the H-1B visa holders he worked with.

In recent years, H-1Bs have been awarded by lottery because the number of visa applicants has far exceeded the annual cap. Immigration advocates say that this shows the scope of the need for high-skilled foreign workers. But critics say that has led to a proliferation of mediocre workers.

There’s also the problem of players who want to cheat the system.”

“H-1B visas are good for three years, after which workers may apply for an additional three year extension. After his six years were up, Vikram’s employer initiated the process of applying for a green card for him, but, because of an enormous backlog for people coming from India, the processing time was expected to last at least nine years.

Vikram decided it wasn’t worth it. He still works with his former employers — but now as part of his own business, which he runs from India, charging his American clients half the cost of a U.S. salary.”

““The focus on H-1B, as if it were the way that we get skilled workers into our economy — that’s an artifact of the misuse of the H-1B visa,” said Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic congressman who wrote the legislation that created the H1-B program. “The H-1B program is a non immigrant program. And non immigrant by definition is supposed to be temporary.”

His solution is to expand the current limit of 140,000 employment-based green cards per year. “We still have the same numerical limitations that we had in 1990,” said Morrison. Biden’s immigration bill includes a provision that would increase the number of employment-based green cards to 170,000.

“People who have green cards have a right to become citizens,” says Morrison. “They get to vote, they have the same rights as citizens, they can’t be exploited in a legal sense. These are real values.””

Worry About Inflation, Not Immigration

“Inflation can act as a regressive tax if rising prices are centered on necessities and if workers in poorer bargaining positions are unable to obtain pay increases. When inflation was growing at about 2 percent per year pre-pandemic, a person making $15 an hour, or $30,000 annually, would lose about $600 a year without a pay increase—not a trivial amount for someone living paycheck to paycheck.

But 2 percent inflation growth is no longer our reality. Prices are now up 6.8 percent since last year, which is the sharpest increase in 39 years. If a $15-per-hour worker didn’t receive a pay raise over this last year, his real earnings could fall by as much as $2,040.

Some workers did see a bump in their paychecks, albeit not enough to offset inflation. After accounting for increases in nominal earnings, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that, on average, workers experienced a 1.9 percent pay cut over the last year due to inflation. This means a $15-per-hour worker likely saw $570 disappear from his wallet.”

‘A $10-Million Scarecrow’: The Quest for the Perfect ‘Smart Wall’

“There was a time when Mexican vendors sold water jugs with a map glued to the side. The map displayed various mountain peaks, and migrants were directed to follow the promontories to highways where they would be picked up. Towers made that impossible. A 10-mile journey became a 20-mile march, and migrants increasingly relied on smugglers to guide them through arroyos, along mountainsides, weaving a path beyond sight of the towers. This is what Boyce and Chambers have termed CBP’s “corral apparatus,” an intentional strategy to funnel migrants into “a narrower corridor of movement” where they’re more likely to become isolated, confused, and where “physiological strain, suffering and mortality are likely to be greatest.” The very point of the surveillance tower placement, they contend, was to increase the difficulty of the journey.
“An initial strategy was to channel people into certain areas, to funnel them to a place where it’s easier to apprehend them,” James Lewis, who had advised on SBInet, told me. “That’s not good from a crosser perspective because they’re forced into more inhospitable areas, and the casualty rate goes up.”

This corralling has an official name, it’s called “prevention through deterrence.” The Clinton administration devised this strategy and CBP still practices it today — consciously or not. During the program’s first stages, in the mid-1990s, the U.S. raised walls near border cities with the intent to push migrants into the desert. Metrics like “a shift in flow” of migratory routes and “fee increase by smugglers” were signs of effectiveness. And deaths were an expected outcome. “Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border,” the policy said, will “find themselves in mortal danger.” The government likely figured this would be an added deterrent, as stories of dead fathers and siblings filtered back through migrant networks. That is not what happened. Instead, as people left broken economies and rampant violence for the U.S., the death toll along the border soared and still the migrants came.”

Around 28,000 Afghans Are Still Awaiting Approval To Come to the U.S. on Urgent Humanitarian Grounds

“Many people seeking an escape from Afghanistan do not qualify for the pathways available to Afghans who served the U.S. military effort in some capacity. Women and girls, human rights workers, journalists, judges, and others must now look instead to a little-used tool of the U.S. immigration system called “humanitarian parole.”

This measure, outlined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, allows certain individuals to enter the U.S. for a temporary period under the discretion of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on the basis of “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” There is no defined set of criteria as to who may qualify for parole, and anyone may apply for it.

Though humanitarian parole allows for faster processing of applicants, it still involves robust vetting. For Afghans, that has meant biometric screenings, cross-checking with intelligence agency watchlists, and other security and identity verification steps. Senior government officials must approve individual applications.

Since July, more than 28,000 Afghans have applied for entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, and the Biden administration reportedly plans to use parole to evacuate up to 50,000 Afghans. But only about 100 applicants have been approved so far.

In large part, this is because this year’s application volume dwarfs the 2,000 parole applications USCIS would receive in a typical year. Staffing issues are also a factor.”

“Applying for parole carries a steep $575 filing charge as well—and an application is no guarantee of protection. USCIS has received roughly $11.5 million from Afghans in just the past few months, according to Al Jazeera, but it has approved few applications in that time.”

How ‘Climate Migrants’ Are Roiling American Politics

“Kissimmee gained a whopping 10,000 new residents between 2017 and 2020, according to census data. Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, and neighboring Orange County saw their combined Puerto Rican population jump more than 12 percent. The changes were so profound that González found herself competing with two other Puerto Rican candidates to become Kissimmee’s mayor.

“Hurricane Maria … served as a reintroduction of the Puerto Rican population into Central Florida,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at the University of Central Florida. Now, “we’re seeing growth in the leadership [of Puerto Ricans].”

The concept of climate migration — population shifts forced by destructive weather changes — has been studied for years. But most Americans still think of it as something that happens elsewhere, or a future doomsday scenario about people flocking to North Dakota to escape extreme weather along the coasts. But experts are saying it’s happening in subtler ways already, forcing people to make moves as dramatic as the influx of Puerto Ricans to central Florida and as mundane as people in tidewater Virginia choosing one county over another to live in to avoid a possible flood plain.

But as evidenced by González’s election, such changes are significant enough to start scrambling the political map, with experts foreseeing a cascading effect of changes to come.”

‘Expect additional long-term damage’: U.S. labor shortage exacerbated by immigration slowdown

“Immigration into America has slowed down tremendously, which may hurt the labor market and economic growth as the country tries to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new note from J.P. Morgan.

“Population slowdown threatens trend growth,” the Nov. 12 note stated, highlighting the fact that due to more aging boomers retiring from the workforce and 3 million fewer immigrants in the country, trend labor force growth is going to be limited at only 0.1% per year and risks hurting overall GDP growth.”

““Immigration is crucial to growing the labor force and for economic growth, particularly in the medium and long term,” Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, told Yahoo Finance.

Anderson added that the Trump administration’s policies greatly limited legal migration and the pandemic worsened the numbers overall, contributing to a shortage of available workers. “If similar policies were to resume in 2025, expect additional long-term damage to U.S. economic growth and the American labor market,” Anderson warned.

J.P. Morgan researchers noted that the Census Bureau estimated that the working age population (ages 16 to 64) peaked in 2019, and has been “falling for almost two years,””

These Asylum Seekers Are Losing Jobs Because Bureaucrats Won’t Do Theirs

“While the specific cases in [this] lawsuit are unfortunate, they point to broader systemic issues in the American immigration apparatus. As Reason’s Eric Boehm reported in September, “one of the major drivers of the immigration system’s mounting caseloads,” which involves “a backlog of nearly 7 million applications and petitions,” comes down to “the government’s own, recently beefed-up immigration bureaucracy.”

The Application for Employment Authorization—the document at the heart of these plaintiffs’ woes and USCIS’s processing issues—”was expanded from one page and 18 questions to seven pages and 61 questions,” writes Boehm. Immigration restrictionists often say that hopeful migrants should come here “the legal way,” but the legal way is becoming more and more difficult to navigate. Immigrants who are already here and employed legally are finding themselves unable to continue working.

Unfortunately, the plaintiffs’ struggle is a reminder that the byzantine legal immigration system doesn’t just harm the migrants tangled in red tape—it also harms the native-born Americans who could benefit from their skills and services in tough times.”

Why Belarus is using migrants as a political weapon

“Belarus has sent thousands of desperate migrants to its border with Poland in a bid to antagonize the European Union over sanctions imposed last year, in the wake of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on political opponents and protesters.
The influx of migrants, which EU officials say Lukashenko has deliberately provoked as a “hybrid attack” on the EU, comes at a difficult moment for the EU as the bloc struggles with internal tensions of its own, but has so far resulted in an increasingly unified EU response.”

“People trying to leave places like Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, have received Belarusian visas, bought a ticket on one of the many flights run by the state-operated airline, and headed to Minsk, Belarus’s capital, where some have been housed in government-run hotels, according to the New York Times.

But far from providing humanitarian aid and a safe haven for migrants, the Lukashenko regime is pushing them toward the borders of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania in an attempt to put pressure on the EU to lift sanctions on the nation.

Belarus has also taken direct action to make things harder for its EU neighbors: The New York Times reports that Belarusian security forces have provided migrants with instructions on crossing the borders and tools like wire cutters and axes to break down border fences.

On Saturday, Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Giczan tweeted that Belarusian forces were attempting to destroy fencing at the Polish border and using lasers and flashing lights to temporarily blind and confuse Polish soldiers stationed there in an attempt to help migrants get across the border.

Despite Belarusian efforts to force migrants into neighboring EU countries, however, the vast majority of those currently at the border are stuck there, with little protection from the elements. As winter sets in, migrants are sleeping in tents, often with inadequate clothing and supplies, and EU countries are thus far refusing them entry. Already, at least nine people have died; some estimates are even higher, and conditions could still worsen as winter sets in.”

“Despite the severity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding at Belarus’s borders, Lukashenko’s aims appear to be primarily political. The strongman president desperately wants to bring the EU to the negotiating table over sanctions imposed after he was fraudulently reelected last year and force the bloc to again recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader.”