H-1B Visa Reform, Sought By Trump, Depends On Congress : All Tech Considered President Trump has said he wants to crack down on abuses and protect American workers. But it's Congress that holds the power to fundamentally reform the program, and work there is underway.
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Trump May Weigh In On H-1B Visas, But Major Reform Depends On Congress

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Trump May Weigh In On H-1B Visas, But Major Reform Depends On Congress

Trump May Weigh In On H-1B Visas, But Major Reform Depends On Congress

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President Trump has said he wants to crack down on abuses of a popular but troubled work visa program. It's called H-1B. But any major changes would have to go through Congress, and there, even when people agree on a problem and a solution, politics can still get in the way, as NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The Rayburn and Longworth buildings of the House of Representatives sit next to each other south of the U.S. Capitol, and this is the walk staffers make between the two in a tunnel that runs deep below, shuttling between congressional offices. Two of the offices on the ends of this tunnel belong to two lawmakers from California.

ZOE LOFGREN: I am Zoe Lofgren. I serve as a senior Democrat on the Immigration Subcommittee in the Judiciary Committee.

SELYUKH: Lofgren's district has a big chunk of Silicon Valley. One of her Republican colleagues on the Judiciary Committee is from San Diego County.

DARRELL ISSA: I'm not sure who I am, but on my birth certificate, it says Darrell Edward Issa.

SELYUKH: He is snarky. Both Issa and Lofgren talk a lot with tech companies and, at one point, almost introduced a bill together on the H-1B visa. It's a very popular visa for high-skilled foreigners, and most are given for tech jobs. It's supposed to be all about the best and the brightest.

ISSA: H-1B exists to bring some of the best and the brightest in for areas in which we have significant shortfalls.

SELYUKH: But a lot about H1-B's considered broken. A lottery decides who gets the visa. The demand has far eclipsed the quota. Options for permanent stay differ by country. And the biggest complaint is that Indian IT companies have hijacked the system. Here's Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Technology Association.

GARY SHAPIRO: They're taking the H-1B visas real U.S. tech company needs, and they're using for a purpose they weren't intended to use for. And that is to basically replace American workers at a cheaper rate by having people come here temporarily.

SELYUKH: These issues affect their districts, but in different ways, both Lofgren and Issa also have a personal connection. Issa is a former electronics executive and has family members from Lebanon balancing lives in several countries. Lofgren, by profession, is an immigration lawyer.

ISSA: We tried to work before the election with the ranking member of the subcommittee.

LOFGREN: We talked for probably six, seven months.

SELYUKH: But like many efforts in this divided Congress, this attempt at a joint bill did not work out. The lawmakers blame each other.

LOFGREN: Well, I tried to work with Darrell, but it's impossible to work with Darrell.

ISSA: And she pulled out of it, preferring partisan politics.

SELYUKH: In the end, the two introduced separate bills, and Issa's legislation, co-sponsored by another California Democrat, has more potential. At least he says he's got the votes to pass it in the House. Shapiro's Technology Association supports it.

SHAPIRO: Congressmen Issa and Peters have introduced legislation which would directly impact the bad players.

SELYUKH: The bill basically raises the bar for companies with lots of H-1B employees to show or attest that they could not hire Americans. Now that's only required for jobs that pay less than $60,000, far less than average tech wages. Under Issa's bill, that would be a hundred thousand dollars. Though Lofgren and other critics say this won't do much.

LOFGREN: You've got companies that are in fact displacing American workers that either have attested, or they've been exempt from it at - it's a dysfunctional system.

SELYUKH: Lofgren's bill sweeps wider, changes the lottery process, goes beyond. Issa says it has merit, but the time for a bigger bill is after the narrow one passes.

ISSA: I support comprehensive, high-skilled reform. But there's a difference between plugging a leak and building a better ship.

SELYUKH: President Trump is likely to weigh in on H1-Bs given his emphasis on immigration, but the power to fundamentally change the visa program is in the hallways, offices and tunnels of Congress. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Washington.

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