Five Presidential Candidates left in their respective political party primaries, and at least four of the five have either come to Buffalo or will be coming to Buffalo over a two-week span, culminating with a Donald Trump speaking event at the First Niagara Center the day before the New York Republican Primary.
Presidential Candidates, H-1B Visas, and Buffalo Tech
Of the many topics debated by the candidates, the one most closely watched by the tech community this campaign season has been the potential reform of the current H-1B visa program for employing foreign workers in specialty occupations – a program used extensively by many of America’s large tech employers.
Why does this matter to us here in Buffalo?
Here’s one reason…
As Buffalo walks further down the path of promotion as an emerging tech city, it’s important to understand why some of the most celebrated tech minds of Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York City, and beyond are paying such close attention to this issue – and why it’s important enough to be a Presidential Debate topic.
What is an H-1B visa and what are the rules today you ask?
Below is an overview of the program from the US Department of Labor H-1B Program website:
The H-1B program applies to employers seeking to hire nonimmigrant aliens as workers in specialty occupations or as fashion models of distinguished merit and ability. A specialty occupation is one that requires the application of a body of highly specialized knowledge and the attainment of at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. The intent of the H-1B provisions is to help employers who cannot otherwise obtain needed business skills and abilities from the U.S. workforce by authorizing the temporary employment of qualified individuals who are not otherwise authorized to work in the United States.
The law establishes certain standards in order to protect similarly employed U.S. workers from being adversely affected by the employment of the nonimmigrant workers, as well as to protect the H-1B nonimmigrant workers. Employers must attest to the Department of Labor that they will pay wages to the H-1B nonimmigrant workers that are at least equal to the actual wage paid by the employer to other workers with similar experience and qualifications for the job in question, or the prevailing wage for the occupation in the area of intended employment – whichever is greater.
The biggest users of H-1B visas are often technology companies (Facebook and Microsoft are a few of the more well known companies mentioned publicly as proponents of expanding the H-1B program) – and for seemingly good reason. Computer Science and Programming skills are in extremely high demand, especially in established tech cities where talent wars have led to storied employee perks. This is why, when my wife and I put our home up for sale in Seattle (as part of our move back to Buffalo), a real estate agent representing Google visited our open house.
Silicon Valley and other major tech areas tend to laud the candidates who look to promote the H-1B program and loath talk of reducing, diminishing or ending H-1B use. A somewhat celebrity group of well-known tech executives have even founded a political advocacy organization called FWD.us to support immigration reform – of which the topic of H-1Bs falls under.
Why this has become a lightning rod topic in the primaries, and will likely be a topic of debate in the general election, is that allegations of abuse of the H-1B program by a number of corporations have come to light over recent years. Reported instances of companies having replaced American workers with H-1B visa status employees has prompted outcries to politicians for change.
Below is an outline of each candidate’s current known stance on H-1B Regulations. One candidate has a history with Buffalo on this very topic.
Donald Trump (R)
Mr. Trump, whose companies he acknowledges use the H-1B program today, has announced strong opposition to the current H-1B visa program. In his immigration reform position document listed on his website, Mr. Trump outlines the following:
- The United States creates two times more graduates with STEM degrees each year than find STEM jobs.
- More than half of the H-1B visas issued every year are for the program’s lowest allowable wage level.
Mr. Trump plans to attack these issues by:
- Raising the prevailing wage minimum for H-1B visas, in an effort to make it more financially attractive to hire existing unemployed or native immigrant workers.
- Institute a requirement to effort to hire American workers first before being allowed to hire foreign workers using the H-1B visa program.
Ted Cruz (R)
Senator Cruz outlines an immigration plan on his website that would suspend the H-1B program for a period of 180 days, during which time the program will be audited. Those that have been found to have abused the program would then be barred from using H-1B visas for a period of 5 years.
Other items Senator Cruz pushes to reform in the current H-1B program include:
- Creating an advanced degree requirement – only advanced degrees would be eligible for an H-1B visa.
- Putting in place a layoff, cool-off period for all H-1B applications – must wait 1-2 years between laying off an American worker and replacing them with an H-1B.
- Establish accreditation requirements for overseas schools – in an effort to identify legitimate degrees from credible overseas educational institutions.
- Require sworn affidavits describing domestic hiring efforts – Companies must swear that they’ve made exhaustive efforts to hire domestic workers before requesting H-1Bs.
- Suspend companies from H-1B visa eligibility for failure to help foreign workers obtain green cards – to combat the situation of employers bringing foreign workers to the US to train them only to send them back to their home country to compete against the US.
Senator Cruz has been criticized for reversing his position on H-1B visas since announcing his campaign seeking the Republican nomination for President. It was reported that the Senator had previously been in favor of increasing the H-1B cap from 85,000 to over 300,000 H-1B visas.
John Kasich (R)
Governor Kasich has not issued a policy statement regarding the H-1B program on his website. He has stated publicly that he is in favor of a guest worker program (a statement which can cover areas of work outside of H-1B), but has not issued any specific information regarding H-1B visa reform as of the time this article was published.
Bernie Sanders (D)
Senator Sanders has shown strong opposition to the current state of the H-1B visa program and outlines a select number of reforms through his immigration policy defined on his website, including:
- Substantially increase prevailing wages – in an effort to stop the exploitation of temporary guest workers, and make hiring domestic workers more attractive
- Removing the visa tie to a specific employer – to remove the potential conflict that could exist in a situation whereby a guest worker must work for a specific employer regardless of treatment or opportunity, or risk being removed from the country.
Hillary Clinton (D)
Secretary Clinton has not issued a policy statement regarding the H-1B program in her immigration policy outlined on her campaign website. Mrs. Clinton does have a direct connection to the context of H-1B visas and Buffalo, NY.
In 2004, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) opened a new training center in downtown Buffalo in large part thanks to the promoting of Buffalo, NY by then New York Senator Hillary Clinton. At the time the luring of the massive, India-based IT consultancy employer was seen as a big win for our area, with the expectation and potential of a hundred or more high-paying tech jobs to be added to downtown business community by the company.
A few short years later, Mrs. Clinton found herself under fire of criticism as TCS had reportedly only employed less than a dozen people at its facility and had potentially offshored local jobs. More than a dozen years later, the Tata Consultancy-Buffalo, NY situation is still being brought up by critics of Secretary Clinton’s campaign.
There is a great deal of information to take into consideration on this topic and there are strong supporters and critics on either side of the H-1B debate.
Local supporters of the program could point to the idea that as Buffalo looks to emerge as a tech business destination, an enhancement of the H-1B program could bring more highly skilled professionals into the city – a situation that could attract even more business, more investment, and more talent with it to downtown Buffalo and the surrounding areas. Perhaps these visitors could become long term Buffalo residents, if they effort to achieve US citizenship, and provide word-of-mouth marketing for our great city to others all over the world.
Critics of the H-1B program could point to the danger that H-1B workers might take local job slots that could have been filled by a Buffalo native, and lead to the potential outsourcing of more Buffalo jobs, citing the TCS situation as an example of promises unfulfilled.
Only time will tell who will become the next President, and the candidates’ recent decent on Buffalo so close to their party’s New York Primary shows the rise in importance the Buffalo area has become in the State. One thing for sure, as Buffalo grows and brands itself as a tech city, the topic of H-1B visa reform becomes not just a national issue, but a local one.
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