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H1-B visasCandidates' plans to change controversial H-1B guest worker program highlight need for an overhaul

By Ron Hira

Published 2 March 2016

Since its inception in 1990, the H-1B guest worker program that allows employers to bring in high-skilled foreign workers on six-year visas has been steeped in controversy. Critics accuse it of depressing wages and outsourcing American jobs, while advocates call it an essential source of the best and brightest talent. The H-1B program is an important program that serves as a bridge to permanent immigration for talented foreign workers. It should be used to recruit truly specialized workers from abroad when the labor conditions are tight and a qualified American can’t be found. But no American worker should ever be displaced by an H-1B worker – that was never the program’s intent – and this practice should be ended.

Since its inception in 1990, the H-1B guest worker program that allows employers to bring in high-skilled foreign workers on six-year visas has been steeped in controversy.

The program has been the subject of dozens of congressional hearings, including one just last week in which I participated, frequent op-eds from pundits and technology moguls, exposés and legislative changes. Critics accuse it of depressing wages and outsourcing American jobs, while advocates call it an essential source of the best and brightest talent.

But this year marks the first time it has risen up to the stage of a presidential campaign. The leading candidates in both parties have staked clear and competing positions about how to change the program, either greatly expanding it (Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton) or tightening the eligibility criteria and requiring the recruitment of American workers first (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders).

But what exactly is the H-1B visa and how does it work? And how would different reforms and changes improve the program?

Since there is much mythology about the program, let’s take a step back and look at what it is intended to achieve to dispel the myths and the confusion.

I have been exploring issues surrounding high-skill immigration and offshoring for more than fifteen years and believe a better understanding of the program will help us assess the candidates’ positions. And my view is that the program is being widely abused by companies and needs to be reformed to ensure it is meeting its intent while providing adequate protection to American and foreign workers alike.

What’s so “special” about it?
The program has its roots in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act as a way to bring in foreign workers “to perform temporary service of an exceptional nature requiring such merit and ability.”

The 1990 Immigration Act formally created the H-1B visa and made two significant changes to the original program: 1) allowing “dual-intent” so that H-1B workers could pursue permanent residency, and 2) setting an annual cap of 65,000 people.