Chuck Grassley

United States Senator from Iowa

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Q&A: Skilled Foreign Work Visas

Apr 21, 2017

With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

Q: What’s happening with your efforts to improve the skilled foreign worker visa programs?

A: Since my recent discussions with the president, momentum is moving in the right direction to fix systemic abuse of employment-based, skilled foreign worker programs created nearly three decades ago. Over time, abuse of the program has led to suppressed wage growth and displaced jobs for American workers. Keep in mind that the H-1B visa program is meant to be a temporary, non-immigration visa program designed to fill gaps in the U.S. workforce for highly specialized jobs, predominantly from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The program was never meant to be used in a way that displaces American workers from their jobs.

The H-1B program provides the legal framework for U.S. employers to temporarily hire skilled foreign workers to complement their domestic workforce and boost innovation, productivity and competitive advantage for the U.S. economy. These visas are issued typically for three years and may be renewed annually for an additional three years. Under current law H-1B visas are distributed on a randomized lottery system that allows for up to 65,000 new visa-holders per year. During my meeting with the president, I spelled out why it’s time to overhaul the program and how to do it. Specifically, I urged the president to include reforms to prioritize visas for the most qualified applicants. This merit-based system would ensure that a limited number of visas reach those best suited to join the American workforce.

The current system arguably has created a perverse incentive in some cases to fire U.S. workers and hire foreign workers, who are often less-qualified, for less wages. Reforms are urgently needed to deter wage depression and thwart job displacement. I have worked relentlessly to restore the integrity of the employment-based visa programs. A decade ago, I started working with Senator Dick Durbin to enact bipartisan reforms to fix flaws and close loopholes. In 2009, I helped secure the bipartisan “Employ American Workers Act” that restricted certain financial institutions from hiring H-1B workers unless the position was first offered to a qualified American worker. Since then, I’ve continued robust oversight, including two congressional hearings to examine and expose how U.S workers are undermined by loopholes and lax enforcement of our employment-based visa programs.  Incredibly, some high-profile U.S. companies even required their American workers to first train their foreign replacements before sending them to the unemployment line. That’s far from a fairy tale ending for a terminated employee. The bottom line is simple. The U.S. government should not be underwriting a program that allows U.S. companies to hire cheaper foreign labor when a U.S. worker has the same or better qualifications. Period.

Q: How would your bipartisan legislation fix what’s broken? 

A:  I was happy to hear that the president took my advice and issued an executive order addressing H-1B visa abuse. While the president’s order is a great first step, lawmakers also will need to take action to restore the integrity of our employment-based immigration policies. Any reforms must prioritize American workers. That’s why I’ve re-introduced an updated bipartisan bill with Senator Durbin. My bill would eliminate the lottery system and require H-1B visas to be awarded to the most skilled or highest paid applicants. Changing the employment-based visas to a merit-based system would help ensure wage integrity, protect American workers, and attract the best and brightest in the field. The current system encourages a race to the bottom of the wage floor and incentivizes an off-shore, outsourcing of work. In addition, my bill would require employers to make a good faith effort to hire U.S. workers by listing a 30-day job posting. The bill would enact stronger enforcement measures to shut down violations and send a clear message that compliance will be strictly enforced. Larger companies would be prohibited from hiring H-1B workers if more than 50 percent of their employees already are working on an employment-based visa. Our bill would ban replacement of U.S. workers by visa holders for 180 days before and after hiring and authorize the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor to investigate fraud and abuse by sharing information and handing out stiffer penalties to wrongdoers. Lastly, our bill prioritizes those educated in the United States, workers with advanced degrees, higher pay scales and specialty occupations with worker shortages. 

 I’ll continue working across the aisle and with the White House to cross the finish line with substantive reforms that prioritize American workers, prevent U.S. jobs from being shipped overseas, support American innovators looking to hire the best and brightest, and promote fairness for skilled foreign labor when filling gaps in the U.S. workforce. Once upon a time, America’s founders enshrined the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our charters of freedom. Now more than 200 years later, I’m working to strengthen the ladder of prosperity and keep the American Dream alive and well for generations to come.