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California in Congress

Darrell Issa takes another shot at changing the rules for the skilled worker visa program

 (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) wants companies that recruit highly skilled foreign workers to follow new standards aimed at making it more difficult to exploit the visa program that allows them to work in the U.S.

Issa on Wednesday introduced legislation backed by multiple Democrats and Republicans that changes the requirements for the visa program known as H-1B, which was designed so foreign workers with specialty skills can fill jobs in the U.S. when qualified Americans aren't available.

The program is heavily used by technology companies, particularly in Silicon Valley, but Issa said the spirit of the program has been ignored by companies that replace Americans with workers from other countries whom they can pay less.

"As soon as you have examples of Americans losing jobs, it makes a good program look bad," Issa said. "You have great success stories, but you don't get judged based on your success stories. You get judged on your failures."

He pointed to Southern California Edison, which has been criticized in recent years for laying off Americans and hiring foreign workers through a consulting company.

"It's specifically required that there be a shortage," Issa said. "When Southern California Edison asked their employees being laid off to train their replacements, by definition there was not a shortage."

Edison said at the time of the layoffs that it was “not hiring H-1B workers to replace displaced employees. Any H-1B visa workers SCE does hire for its own workforce are paid a wage comparable to SCE's domestic workforce."

Disney and a handful of other California companies have been criticized in recent years for similar moves.

Only 85,000 H-1B visas are granted each year. Critics complain that U.S. employers exploit loopholes in the system to hire cheaper labor from abroad at the expense of American workers.

Companies with more than 50 employees who have 15% or more employees with the visas must show on H-1B applications that the job was advertised to American workers. But employers can be exempted from that paperwork if the potential employee holds a master’s degree or will be paid at least $60,000 annually.

Issa’s bill would remove the exemption for workers with a master’s degree; he says it's too easy to get one from an uncredentialed foreign university. The bill would also increase the minimum salary needed for an exemption to $100,000 annually.

Issa pitched a similar bill late in the last Congress, when few new bills were considered , and it died in committee without a hearing. But with a new Republican president this year, things could be different.

Reforming the program was among the topics discussed at a December meeting between Trump and tech leaders. Issa said conversations with tech leaders after that meeting, coupled with bipartisan support for the legislation, makes him think the bill has a better chance in this Congress.

"I expect it to move, and move quickly," Issa said. "This is a piece of legislation which logically should get an overwhelming majority in the House on a bipartisan basis. It's designed to be an ... easy win."

Issa said he's hoping the H-1B program changes can be considered outside of broader immigration reform "so we just fix a problem."

"If we can't solve this one on a bipartisan basis, we're not going to get to the harder ones," he said.

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