The campaign and election of President Donald Trump has put immigration at the center of the national debate on multiple fronts: of course, there’s the roiling politics surrounding a proposed southern border wall, but there’s also contention over the extent to which the country should allow highly skilled foreigners to work here on special visas.
The H-1B visa program, created in 1990 to give foreign workers with specialized skills temporary authorization to work in the U.S., has come under fire of late, as some say lax standards permit companies to import foreign workers to do jobs Americans could do at lower wages.
This month, Trump signed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, calling on federal officials to “suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries,” in addition to reviewing fair trade agreements and requiring the executive branch to prioritize U.S. products and workers.
In Minnesota, it’s true that the number of applications by companies to bring foreign workers into the state has been on the rise in recent years, from around 15,000 workers requested in 2011 to more than 21,000 in 2015.
But does that increase indicate an abuse of the system? Not necessarily — for, as a review of H-1B application records from the Department of Labor reveals, not all H-1B applications are the same.
The heaviest users of the H-1B system, at least in terms of the number of applications (the U.S. State Department keeps data on the number of visas actually granted but state-level data is not available online), are multinational companies seeking to hire workers at Minnesota locations: London and New York-based consulting firm Deloitte (requested 2,581 employees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor), which has an office in Minneapolis, Cognizant, a New Jersey-based IT company with offices in Edina (2,130), and Wipro Ltd., a Bengaluru, India IT company with offices in Minneapolis (1,087), among others.
These companies seek everything from managers and analysts to developers, engineers and programmers, and some of them are Indian outsourcing companies, which some have accused of using visas to fill pedestrian IT jobs — not, they say, positions that require specialized skills.
“These workers come in, learn the ropes and then send the IT work to be done cheaply in India — by training workers in their home country to do those jobs,” National Public Radio wrote of multinational outsourcing firms.
Getting H-1B visas is a competitive process: the number of H-1Bs actually granted to businesses annually across the U.S. is capped at 85,000. This year, there were 199,000 applications, marking the first time the number of applications saw a decline in the last five years (universities and nonprofit and government research institutions are not subject to the cap).
A 2015 New York Times analysis found some multinational IT companies game the H-1B system by flooding it with applications in order to win more of them from the lottery. In 2014, Wipro, for example, received 3.5 percent of the 85,000 H-1B visas. The company did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
In the wake of criticism, Bengaluru-based Infosys, which settled allegations of visa fraud in 2013, said Tuesday it would hire up to 10,000 American workers. In a statement to MinnPost, a Tata Consultancy Services spokesman wrote in an email that the Mumbai company has reduced its use of H-1B visas. He called the company “an engine of job growth for Americans.” Both Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services requested workers in Minnesota in 2016.
H-1B visa workers are required to be paid at levels comparable to U.S. workers in the same jobs and geographic areas who have similar levels of experience. But there are loopholes for the salary requirement. In 1998, Congress added an exemption to the law authorizing the program, which allowed companies to sidestep rules about protecting U.S. jobs, as long as workers were paid $60,000 or more a year or had master’s degrees, the Atlantic reported. And while companies are required to pay prevailing wage, there’s nothing prohibiting a company from letting older workers go and replacing them with less experienced H-1B workers.
On average, salaries proposed for H-1B workers by Indian multinationals for Minnesota jobs in applications tends to be lower than those proposed by large Minnesota companies like Target and Medtronic (when salary ranges were offered, MinnPost took the average of the low and high salary).
But while companies with headquarters outside the state submit the most applications for H-1B workers, plenty of homegrown Minnesota companies also take advantage of the program. In 2016, Target requested 171 workers in Department of Labor applications. Medtronic requested 65, and other big local players, like 3M (36) and Toro (4) threw their hats in the ring, too.
Both Target and Medtronic declined to comment for this story. Many of the applications were for engineers, but the list also included analysts, software developers and other jobs.
For large employers in Minnesota, “their use of the H-1B program is largely because of the fact that they are scrambling to try and find those tech workers,” said Matt Streff, a Minneapolis attorney who focuses on immigration law. Minnesota’s low unemployment is even lower in its tech sector.
For bigger companies, he said, it’s also not uncommon to hire foreign professionals for specific skills or international experience. A recent H-1B he worked on was for a marketing professional a New York firm wanted to hire specifically for her experience working internationally and nonprofit marketing skills, he said.
Smaller companies seek H-1B workers, too: August Schell Brewing Company applied to have an H-1B visa approved for a “sour beer research and development analysis” and Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely applied for one for a wilderness dogsled expedition guide.
“For smaller employers, the reason for hiring an H-1B (worker) is because that person has something very specific about them that is useful,” Streff said.
Streff warned that when it comes to tech companies, restrictions on the H-1B program would not only hurt Minnesota companies’ ability to fill out staff jobs during a tech labor shortage, but would also mean cutting out a major driver of innovation and job creation in the American economy.
When an employer working on, say, carbon nanotube technology in Minnesota is able to hire an international person “who’s got the brilliant master’s thesis on carbon nanotubes, when they hire that person that means they’re also going to hire maybe a couple other lab technicians from the University of Minnesota,” he said, creating job opportunities for Minnesota graduates.
Medical and academic organizations
It isn’t just businesses that request H-1B workers. Academic and medical institutions also apply to bring a substantial number of H-1B workers to Minnesota each year, including the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, which sent in applications to request 246 and 215 H-1B employees, respectively, in 2016.
Mayo didn’t comment on the executive order, but offered a statement detailing the types of employees it commonly employs on H-1Bs, including researchers, clinical residents and fellows, physician-scientists, doctors in underserved areas and other health roles.
“We greatly value the talents and contributions of the small number of staff with H-1B visas,” spokeswoman Duska Anastasijevic wrote.
The University of Minnesota currently employs about 370 workers on H-1B visas, a level Mark Schneider, the associate director for employment-based visas in the university’s Office of International Student and Scholar Services, told MinnPost is fairly typical. They tend to work in STEM fields such as medicine, dentistry, public health, nursing, science and engineering as Ph.D. researchers and faculty, he said.
The Trump administration’s rhetoric surrounding jobs and immigration, including H-1B visas, has international students and employees at the University of Minnesota on edge, Schneider said. Following the H-1B executive order, his department sent an email out to international employees reminding them no changes to the program were imminent.
As for the university, restricting the school’s ability to obtain H-1B workers (as an academic institution, it is not subject to the 85,000 cap), could leave some research-type jobs unfilled, Schneider said. The U also hires an average of 20 international tenure-track faculty members each year (ultimately, H-1B holders may apply for permanent residency visas), so cutting off H-1Bs, he said, “could highly affect our research mission at the University of Minnesota.”
Right now, Trump’s order for a review of the program is just that — an order for a review. Trump would need Congress to overhaul the program.
And even among critics of the H-1B program, there’s division: Some strike a populist tone in opposing the hiring of foreign workers for American jobs nearly outright, while others feel the system has problems that need to be fixed in order for it to work properly and fairly.
Currently, there are bills in the House and Senate that would require companies that use a lot of H-1B workers to “attest” that they tried and couldn’t hire Americans, give priority to foreign students who graduated from U.S. schools and replace the lottery with a system that gave visas first to to the highest-paying companies.
In Washington as across the country, the issue isn’t necessarily a red versus blue one: in Minnesota’s delegation, both Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen have expressed support for the visa program. Klobuchar, in fact, sponsored legislation in 2013 to expand the cap on the program to 115,000.
“While the Senator has long supported the use of green cards and visas in certain circumstances, she also supports reforms to the H1-B program, including increasing fees paid by companies for these visas and investing those fees in STEM education, and requiring companies to follow strict requirements to find an American worker to fill that position before seeking a visa,” a Klobuchar spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to MinnPost. “The Senator has made it clear that she won’t support a comprehensive immigration bill without these reforms.”
Paulsen cautioned against imposing too-tight restrictions on the program.
“The H-1B visa program is an important tool for attracting and retaining top talent in STEM careers and we shouldn’t kick people out of the country so they can become our competitors, especially if they were trained and educated in the U.S.,” a statement from Paulsen said. “While we must ensure that the program is not being abused, it’s also critical not to turn away some of the brightest minds in the world that can help grow and contribute to our economy.”