Quality before Quantity

By Cody Donald on March 19, 2015

In the Senate Judiciary committee hearing on March 17, 2015, entitled "Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers", much of the conversation about the H1-B visa program revolved around balancing legitimate business needs to fill vacant positions and the effect of the widespread importation of foreign labor on the plight of the American worker. Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), a Democratic member of the "Gang of Eight", brought up three concerns about the H1-B program as it currently stands.

He began by affirming that the role of Congress is to protect the American worker: "We can't walk out this door if we don't establish that our first responsibility is to hire unemployed Americans. How in the world can we rationalize anything else?" If this is going to be taken at face value, it can only be concluded that a system that rewards foreign workers with jobs at the expense of American jobs cannot be what Congress intended. The situation at Southern California Edison shows that, as it stands, the H1-B program not only prevents the hiring of unemployed Americans, but causes their unemployment. It follows indisputably that the system must change to protect the American worker.

Sen. Durbin also noted the conditions of the guestworkers themselves: "There is a form of servitude here. They're stuck. And they can be mistreated, abused, at the expense of the American workforce ... with virtually no recourse." So, in addition to American workers, the current H1-B program harms guestworkers.

Sen. Durbin added: "What are we going to pay these folks? Is this going to be such a low wage that it disadvantages American workers? That to me is a key to it." There is no doubt that the senator is right about the issue: Pay is clearly an important aspect to the H1-B debate and basic business sense and economics indicate that low, submarket wages can only crowd out more expensive American workers. At the same hearing, John Miano, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, testified that 56 percent of H1-B applications are at the lowest skill level, eligible to be paid only in the 17th percentile of the average rate (50th percentile is the average prevailing wage in an industry). More specifically, the Southern California Edison example shows how the H1-B program can be used to reduce business expenses. Alarmingly, what Southern California Edison is doing is not only rampant in the H1-B market, but also is probably legal under the current statutes.

Comments made by Sen. Durbin's commentary reveal that the key to balancing business interests and American workers' rights is to actually require competitive wages for the services of foreign workers. If foreign workers really are "the best and the brightest" — greater than any available American, then American companies not only should be willing to pay the going rate, but be willing to pay a premium. Fair wages for both foreign and American workers seems like common sense; the desire for profits should not outweigh the rights of American citizens and foreign workers alike. Instead, design a fully functioning H1-B system that truly admits only the best and brightest. Only then, by first improving the quality of the H1-B workers themselves, can it be determined what quantity of the world's "best and brightest" both want to come to America and are needed by American companies.