They agree on little else in the immigration debate but Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions and Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin teamed together Thursday to ask the Obama administration to investigate the guest-worker program for high-skilled foreigners, fearing it’s being abused by companies seeking cheaper labor.
The program, known as the H-1B visa, is used by science and technology firms to fill out the ranks of computer programmers and engineers, but has been controversial with American workers in those fields, who argue there are more than enough people already in the U.S. who are qualified for those jobs.
Mr. Durbin and Mr. Sessions said they’ve seen reports that some U.S. companies lay off American workers and then replace them with foreign contractors through the visa program — which would amount to illegal discrimination against the U.S. workers.
“We respectfully request that you investigate the unacceptable replacement of American workers by H-1B workers to ascertain whether [Southern California Edison] or any other U.S. companies that have engaged in this practice, or the IT consulting companies supplying those companies with H-1B workers, have violated the law,” the senators said in their letter to the Justice, Labor and Homeland Security departments.
Employees of Southern California Edison told Congress last month they were laid off but had to train their replacements — who were H-1B visa holders.
Congress has approved 85,000 H-1B visas this year, with 20,000 of them reserved for foreigners who got advanced degrees from U.S. universities. The application window opened on April 1 and closed within a week, when more than enough applications had been submitted. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will now randomly select which applications will be chosen.
Guest-worker programs are among the trickiest issues of the immigration debate.
Businesses want the workers, saying there aren’t enough Americans to fill jobs in everything from computer programming to farm work, and they are pressing for a revamp of the guest-worker system. They say that without the H-1B program, American companies would just send more jobs offshore, because there isn’t enough talent available within the U.S. to fill the right slots.
Advocates for American workers say businesses should increase wages, saying that where companies are willing to pay, they can find U.S. employees.
That backing is part of what brought Mr. Sessions and Mr. Durbin together in their call for an investigation, joined by eight other Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Durbin was part of the Gang of Eight senators who wrote the 2013 immigration bill legalizing most illegal immigrants, while Mr. Sessions was one of the leading opponents of that bill. They have also tangled over President Obama’s deportation amnesty, with Mr. Durbin having led the effort to press Mr. Obama to act, and Mr. Sessions leading the fight to overturn the amnesty.
They noted their differences Thursday, but said they share a belief that the immigration system shouldn’t be used to displace American workers.
“The U.S. is graduating twice as many STEM students each year as find jobs in those fields, yet the H-1B program continues to provide IT companies with a large annual supply of lower-wage guest workers to hire in place of more qualified Americans,” Mr. Sessions said. “There is no ‘shortage’ of talented Americans, only a shortage of officials willing to protect them.”
The 10 senators who signed Thursday’s letter span the political spectrum, and even include two lawmakers who have signed on to a bill to triple the size of the H-1B program: Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats.
Ron Hira, a professor at Howard University who has studied the H-1B program, estimated there are about 600,000 people in the U.S. thanks to the program.
Senators said they feared U.S. companies were firing employees then hiring contractors with thousands of H-1B employees on their payrolls to do the same work, at much lower salaries.