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Senators Call for Investigation Into Foreign Worker Visas, Layoffs

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 13, 2015 3:58 PM

Companies that rely on highly skilled foreign workers to replace domestic counterparts may be facing increased scrutiny in the near future. Ten senators recently called for an investigation into the government's H-1B visa program. That program allows employers to hire specialized foreign workers in order to fill slots that can't be filled by domestic labor.

Many companies, particularly in the tech industry, have been arguing for an expansion to the program. To critics, however, the H-1B visas aren't a source of new talent, but an open door to replacing American workers with lower paid foreign labor. Recent developments could put a kink in the plans of employers who rely on such visas.

Many Layoffs, Many Visas

The senators have called for an investigation by the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Labor into the use of the H-1B program to replace American workers. Their focus is Southern California Edison and other employers who canned their IT departments and replaced them with foreign workers.

Part of the controversy is the apparently blatant way in which Southern California Edison replaced its department. Almost 500 IT workers were let go at once, to be replaced by offshore contractors Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, two of the largest users of H-1B visas. The senators now want to investigate whether that move broke the law, as part of the application process for H-1B visas requires an employer to attest that the foreign workers "will not adversely affect" the conditions of similar workers.

An Invitation to Discriminate or an Important Source of Talent?

The letter notes that H-1B petitions are often concentrated in IT fields -- 65% of approved petitions last year were for computer-related work. Tech companies have long been clamoring for increases in the immigration limits of the H-1B program, arguing that they cannot fill the need for talent with a solely domestic supply. Critics say the program is already largely abused.

Aside from the investigation of SCE's individual moves, the inquiry could complicate measures to expand the H-1B program. Currently, the Senate is also considering whether to triple the size of the program, raising the yearly H-1B visa cap from 65,000 to 195,000 workers annually. The letter was signed by Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the DOJ. Two of the ten senators to put their name on the letter are also sponsors of the bill seeking to expand the H-1B program.

Even if the letter doesn't shake up the H-1B program, a recent lawsuit might. IT professionals have sued Infosys, alleging that the company engages in discrimination on the basis of national origin and race.

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