All the country’s visas for high-skilled workers were snatched up in the first week yet again this year, the government reported Thursday, signaling that companies’ voracious appetites for cheap foreign workers remains unabated despite intense criticism on the presidential campaign trail.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it received more than enough applications to claim the 85,000 visas available under the H-1B program this year and will once again hold a lottery to award the coveted permits.
Technology companies, desperate for the workers, said reaching the cap just days after the April 1 application period began should spur Congress to more than double the limit. They lamented the “absurdity” of leaving tens of thousands of willing workers without a path into the U.S.
But tech employees and those seeking stricter immigration limits say the H-1B program has become a chief way to undercut Americans’ wages. They point to several high-profile cases in which U.S. workers were fired and, in some cases, even forced to train their foreign replacements.
“It’s very disappointing for someone like me, an American who’s been affected. And not only me, but hundreds here in Florida,” said Leo Perrero, a former tech worker at Disney who trained his replacement and earlier this year filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Disney of colluding to displace Americans.
The fight has spilled into the presidential election, where Republican front-runner Donald Trump has vowed to do away with the program, saying the U.S. produces twice as many science and technology graduates as there are jobs to be filled.
“These American students are being passed over for lower-wage guest workers,” said Stephen Miller, senior policy adviser to the Trump campaign. “Today’s news is just more evidence that we need to reform our visa programs — especially the widely abused H-1B — to ensure that jobs and wages go to Americans first.”
The H-1B program was designed to bring in high-skilled workers. The lawmakers who created it figured only those with unmatched skills would take advantage, so they didn’t bother to build in wage protections, said John Miano, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and co-author, along with Michelle Malkin, of the book “Sold Out,” which takes a critical look at how companies use H-1B visas.
Mr. Miano said the result is that American companies have spotted a way to reduce their costs by importing workers — primarily computer programmers from India.
But Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a pro-business organization that lobbies for more generous immigration laws, said the U.S. economy needs the foreign workers.
“Once again, we see the absurdity of our broken immigration system and the consequences of decades of congressional inaction. The fact that it hasn’t even been one full week since the process opened on April 1 makes it clear that our broken immigration system continues to hinder America’s economic growth and job creation,” he said.
He said U.S. policy should be to welcome and keep “the best and the brightest” and that hitting the H-1B cap so quickly shows that the country is failing to meet that goal.
Disney, whose layoffs of some 250 tech workers made it the subject of piercing questions, said the cuts were part of a reorganization to respond to “the constant evolution of technology.” Disney said it rehired more than 100 of the workers for other positions and opened other IT jobs to American workers.
H-1B visas allow foreigners to stay in the U.S. for up to six years and often are used as gateway visas. Companies apply to get their employees green cards, signifying permanent legal residence.
Analysts said it’s unclear how many people are in the U.S. on H-1B visas or how many convert to green cards.
Mr. Miano said up to 80 percent of those approved for H-1Bs are computer programmers, and they are paid on average $20,000 less than American workers would make.
“It’s the best legislation that money can buy. It’s been designed to be abused,” he said. “People describe it as a marketing program for bringing in highly skilled workers. In reality, it’s nothing like that. If we were bringing in highly skilled workers, why are nearly all of them coming from India? Why aren’t they coming from China, why aren’t they coming from Japan?”
A few companies dominate the process, with Infosys filing more than 33,000 petitions in 2015 and Tata Consultancy Services accounting for 16,553 petitions, according to statistics kept by MyVisaJobs.com.
Infosys’ average salary listed on its applications was $79,203, and Tata’s was $69,748.
Congress last year did increase the fee for applications, but it did not squelch interest in the program.
Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas have introduced legislation calling for companies to pay a minimum $110,000 salary for H-1B employees, which they say would help ensure only truly high-skilled employees use the program.
Mr. Cruz is competing with Mr. Trump in the Republican presidential race, where the H-1B program was the subject of a question during last month’s candidates debate in Miami. Sen. Marco Rubio, who also was campaigning at the time, said he would welcome a pause in the program while any abuses are solved.
Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has called for raising the wage threshold for H-1B workers to prevent them from being used as replacements for Americans. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has been silent this campaign — though in her 2008 bid she was an enthusiastic backer of more H-1B visas.
Mr. Sessions and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, called for an investigation into abuses of the program last April as the cap was reached. Over the summer, they confirmed that the Labor Department was looking into Infosys and Tata.
A spokesperson for Infosys promised to have someone respond to questions, but that didn’t happen by press time Thursday.
A call left for Tata was not returned.