Tech & Work

H-1B visas: The top 5 myths

The Trump administration's immigration changes have employers scrambling to determine their impact on businesses and employees. Here's how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to H-1B.

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Image: VIPDesignUSA, Getty Images/iStockphoto


To "protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States," President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that freezes travel for 90 days for citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Additionally, the US Refugee Admissions Program was suspended for 120 days, and Syrian refugees have been indefinitely suspended from entry into the US. The order originally applied to all non-US residents from these countries, although the Trump administration later eased the restriction on green card holders.

One group impacted by the ban is H-1B visa holders from the seven countries. There is also speculation that Trump will sign another executive order, with more specific changes to the H-1B visa program. This should not come as a big surprise, as Trump was vocal in his opposition to the program during his campaign, posting on his website "I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions."

"There's a lot of hostility to the H-1B program within the Trump administration, so I would expect that they're going to do significant damage to the program's viability," said Ava Benach, founding partner at immigration law firm Benach Collopy LLP.

While specific changes to the H-1B visa plan are not confirmed, the travel ban has already impacted employers and workers. There are currently approximately 400,000 H-1B employees. The H-1B program is not the only visa foreign-born workers in the US use—there's the L-1, the F-1 OPT, and a handful of others—but it is the most widely used. And changes to the H-1B plan will certainly impact the tech industry, as tech companies are the primary employers of these visa holders.

According to a report from the Partnership of a New American Economy, nearly 20% of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants. More than half of US startups worth over $1 billion have an immigrant founder.

After the executive order was signed, tech leaders from Google, Amazon, Apple, Lyft, Netflix, and many other companies spoke out in opposition to the ban, worrying about how it will impact their current employees, as well as their potential to draw in high-level workers to increase innovation.

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With all of the changes around immigration under the Trump administration, it's worth pulling apart the fact from fiction. Here are some common myths about H-1B visas.

1. Workers on H-1B visas compete with Americans for working class jobs.

H-1B visas are temporary work visas used by many employers who need to fill positions that require specialized skills—many of which are in the technology sphere. They can last up to six years. Each year, 85,000 of these visas are issued, and last year, there were 230,000 applicants. The visa holders come to the US legally, at the request of employers, and are generally not in competition with Americans who are searching for lower-level positions.

2. H-1B visas are an easy way for foreign-born workers to get into the US.

The current process to hire an H-1B visa employee can be arduous. Companies invest in finding these employees from abroad when they cannot find them in the US, and put time, money, and legal fees into hiring them. They are also required to prove that they cannot find employees to fill the positions from the US. There are companies that go through less rigorous demonstration processes.

3. Employers who hire workers on H-1B visas provide little support to these workers.

Employers usually go to great lengths to hire employees on H-1B visas, and many are required to pay the legal fees to bring these workers into the US—which can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. Because employers see these employees as critical to their business, many are willing to make the investment. According to Benach, who works with companies who have hired these employees, "employers are pretty firmly on their side in not wanting to put them in any sort of legal jeopardy."

SEE: Trump's opposition to H-1B visas has experts concerned about filling high-skilled jobs

4. Employers hire H-1B visa workers over Americans who can do the same job.

Again, H-1B visa holders are sought-after workers that companies hire from abroad only when they are unable to find Americans to fill positions. Many companies are required to make a good faith effort to hire an American worker before hiring a foreign worker on an H-1B visa, according to the Department of Labor. And The New York Times reported that "employers are required to declare to the Department of Labor that hiring foreigners on the visas 'will not adversely affect the working conditions of U.S. workers similarly employed.'"

It's important to point out that some companies can abuse the visa, and there are cases where American workers have trained replacements. "There are plenty of cases of exploitation of H-1B workers by major employers," said Ronil Hira, associate professor of political science at Howard University. Most notably, Disney abused the H-1B, hiring employees in low-wage jobs that replaced American workers. Still, "critics are worried about undercutting U.S. wages, which we have good data showing is not a widespread abuse," Adams Nager, economic policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

5. H-1B workers are a drain on our economy.

It may sound counterintuitive, but foreign-born workers bring resources into our country. Not only do they provide employers with the skills needed for certain jobs, but they have a financial impact, spending part of their salary here in the US. Also, studies have shown H-1B workers create opportunities for domestic counterparts as well, according to Nager.

Counterpoint

The rules around H-1B visas can be complex, and, as we've mentioned, there have been cases of companies abusing the system. We have heard from readers who have seen and experienced some of these kinds of abuses. It's also important to point out that some companies can abuse the visa, and there are cases where American workers have trained replacements. Many believe that the H-1B visa program should be amended, and some believe the lottery system should be abolished. Trump will likely sign an executive order soon with changes to the program, which TechRepublic will closely follow and report on.

The bottom line is that we still don't know exactly how the H-1B visa will be altered. Still, changes to the plan will have a big impact on businesses and employees.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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