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Despite Trump's claims, incentive already exists to hire skilled American workers

University of Minnesota Professor Abdennour Abbas (center) tests a sponge he developed that can suck the mercury out of polluted water.

University of Minnesota Professor Abdennour Abbas (center) tests a sponge he developed that can suck the mercury out of polluted water. Ke Xu

As part of his “America First” platform, President Donald Trump recently ordered review and reform of the H-1B visa, a guest worker program that invites the best and brightest of foreign minds to fill jobs in American science and technology.

The executive order, “Buy American and Hire American,” is premised on the notion that businesses are increasingly eschewing qualified Americans in favor of cheap foreign labor.

There are plenty of studies that say this isn’t true, and some that say it is. Depending on who you ask, the H-1B visa program is either an essential tool for America competitiveness to retain the best crop of immigrants from around the world, or a loophole for businesses to cut corners on labor costs.

In Minnesota, where workforce needs are outpacing population growth in a variety of sectors, IT businesses, research institutions, and universities have been the largest employers of high-skilled foreign workers.

But even then, the number of jobs they occupy is relatively small. Throughout the state, there are only about 2,000 H-1B holders.

Nationwide, H-1B visas are capped at 85,000, meaning there’s an intense annual lottery for those jobs. Of the available positions, 20,000 are reserved for people who have earned a master’s or higher professional American degree.

This year, about 200,000 hopefuls applied. Each had to be exceptional enough to earn the sponsorship of a business willing to shoulder the immense filing fees (up to $10,000), attorneys fees (it depends), and six-months wait for the government to respond. Before all that begins, the business had to agree to a legally binding list of conditions, including paying that foreign worker a prevailing wage, and ensuring that the worker would not hurt the employment conditions of others.

It’s such a big hassle and expense that businesses have every incentive to hire American instead, says Minneapolis immigration attorney Sarah Peterson.

“I can guarantee you if my employers [clients] can find U.S. workers to fill their high-skill roles, they would hire them because [H-1B is ] a huge business expense, it’s a hassle, and it’s unpredictable,” Peterson says.

"Businesses need that predictability to be able to hire immediately, to know what their work force is going to be like. With the lottery system as it’s set up, it’s entirely up to whether or not you have that Vegas luck on your side.”

Nevertheless, opponents of the program argue that abuse is prevalent. In 2016, the Congress heard a number of examples. Disney IT engineer Leo Perrero described how he and two dozen of his colleagues were suddenly laid off and forced to train their foreign replacements. Labor attorney John Miano brought up the case of Southern California Edison, which replaced hundreds of American IT workers with Indian labor.

These and other reports fueled a public backlash against the “myth” that H1-B workers fulfill roles that Americans cannot.

Mark Schneider, who works in the University of Minnesota’s international department, says that an outsized share of attention have been spent on the small number of employers who misuse the program.

Congress has previously decided that big Minnesotan H-1B employers such as the university and Mayo Clinic are exempt from caps on H-1B hires, he notes, because “when they created the regulations, they knew doing research at research institutions and universities was necessary for our educational development as a country.”

The university currently has about 370 foreigners working in high-level research and teaching science, technology, engineering, and medicine.

They include Prof. Abdennour Abbas, whose lab created a sponge that can remove mercury from polluted water within seconds; assistant Prof. Sairaj Dhople, who develops technologies for integrating renewable energy into the electric grid; assistant Prof. Mikael Elias, who has developed enzymes that kill antibiotic-resistent superbacteria; and researcher Dr. Ezequiel Marron, who is studying the neurological foundation of drug addiction. 

These aren’t jobs that are lost to Americans, as far as Schneider is concerned. It’s his job to ensure that the university’s “highly valued” foreign employees are paid just as much as their American counterparts, or the school stands to get sanctioned by Immigration.

“It’s a huge process taking up money, time, waiting to hire. Why would we put in all this if we didn’t need to?” he says.

“There are some companies out there playing fast and loose with the rules and have got a majority of foreign nationals, but here, we’re paying them what we pay to post-docs, research associates, faculty. They should be cracking down on those employers making a bad name for the whole H-1B program.”

In related news, the president's "America First" budget proposal also calls for big cuts to science and education. The National Institutes of Health face a gutting of 18 percent, and the Education Department would lose 13.5 percent, which includes eliminating more than $2 billion for a program that helps states recruit much-needed science and math teachers for rural schools.