Just in time for a primary season that’s highly-charged over the issue of immigration, the H1-B visa is back in the news for facilitating layoffs of American workers. The visa allows companies to bring over tech workers on a visa that gives them no path to citizenship status and ties their presence in the U.S. to their job. This makes the H1-B workers cheaper and more pliable than U.S. workers; furthermore, H1-B workers in the U.S. are often used to pave the way to outright offshoring. We’ve covered H1-B layoffs before, especially before the saga of workers laid off at Disney. But it turns out that due to a legalism present in many contracts, there may be far more affected workers who are not speaking out. ComputerWorld reports:
The Disney severance package offered to them did not include a non-disparagement clause, making it easier for laid-off workers to speak out. This is in contrast to the severance offered to Northeast Utility workers.
The utility, now known as Eversource Energy and based in Connecticut and Massachusetts, laid off approximately 200 IT employees in 2014 after contracting with two India-based offshore outsourcing firms. The employees contacted local media and lawmakers to pressure the utility to abandon its outsourcing plan.
Some of the utility’s IT employees had to train their foreign replacements. Failure to do so meant loss of severance. But an idea emerged to show workers’ disdain for what was happening: Small American flags were placed in cubicles and along the hallway in silent protest — flags that disappeared as the workers were terminated.
Some workers feel that under the circumstances, silence is impossible:
[S]taying silent is difficult, especially after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) co-sponsored legislation in January 2015 that would hike the 65,000 H-1B base cap hike to as high as 195,000. The measure, known as the I-Squared Act, left some of the former utility IT employees incredulous. They were far from alone.
The 200,000-member engineering association, IEEE-USA, said the I-Squared bill would “help destroy” the IT workforce with a flood of lower paid foreign workers.
Eventually, Blumenthal’s staff did learn, confidentially, about the experiences of former Eversource IT workers.
In November, Blumenthal co-sponsored new H-1B legislation by longtime program critics, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), designed to prevent the replacement of U.S. workers by H-1B visa holders.
Nonetheless, Blumenthal remains a co-sponsor of the I-Squared Act, which raised questions among those laid off about his intentions.
This issue has salience for the GOP primary. Sen. Marco Rubio is a leading proponent of the I-Squared Act. On the other hand, Grassley and Durbin’s reform effort comes alongside one by Sen. Jeff Sessions (who has been rumored to be on the verge of endorsing Donald Trump) and Sen. Ted Cruz, which would essentially create a whistleblower’s exception to non-disparagement provisions: you could speak out if you were complaining about H1-B layoffs.
There are many reasons to be supportive of legal U.S. immigration. But as we’ve written before, the H1-B is an ugly, crony-ist measure. It brings none of the benefits to the nation of legal immigration, while carrying many of the costs. Lawmakers may be tempted to look to it as a way to work-around a broken immigration system—but evidence suggests that it makes many problems worse: layoffs, lowered wages, and ultimately, offshoring (as well as unknown amount of visa-overstays.) Passing an expansion of it right now would be sure to exacerbate immigration tensions, to little gain—unless you own a business that uses H1-B workers.