Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a Council Member At Large and Former Mayor Pro Tem for the Town of Morrisville and an Opinion Writer for WRAL Tech Wire.  He served on the Board of the New American Economy, now the American Immigration Council, and on the NC League of Municipalities Race and Equity Task Force. He is a regular contributing writer to WRAL TechWire.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – A few weeks ago, the Tech Wire Article: H1B Soaring: Feds Worry System, brought  up legitimate concerns about increasing cases of Fraud with the High Skilled Based immigration program knows as the H-1B Visa Program.

I wanted to take this opportunity to address the issue of immigration fraud, and more importantly, respond to any negative perceptions which could be attributed to H1B immigrants who contribute to the continued success and growth of an innovation economy.

Steve Rao

Last year, employers filed almost 800,000 applications for H-1B visas for skilled workers — a 57% increase on the previous year. That’s a staggering number, considering that the program makes available just 85,000 visas each year.

It turns out, however, that not all those applications were legitimate. According to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) about half of last year’s H-1B applications were duplicate filings, with a small number of companies filing repeatedly on behalf of individual workers. The H-1B system is a lottery, and some companies were buying tickets in bulk to maximize their chance of winning.

Gaming the system

Gaming the system in this way isn’t illegal, as long as the company has a real job waiting for the visa recipient. But authorities believe that some companies then contract these employees out to third parties, or immediately lay them off, so that another company can hire them. Neither of these moves are permitted under immigration law.

I’m an avowed immigration advocate, and find these abuses deeply frustrating. There’s already a lot of confusion about the way the H-1B system works. Some people worry that H1B visas are used to recruit cheap IT workers from overseas, suppressing wages and making life harder for Americans.

In fact, the opposite is true. H-1B visa holders are hired into positions that companies couldn’t otherwise fill, thus enabling them to grow. As a result, wages have increased for everyone, according to research from the American Immigration Council.

Research also shows that skilled immigration directly fuels broadscale economic growth. Because H-1B visa holders often have advanced degrees and high-tech research skills, they drive innovation. One study found that increasing the proportion of immigrant college graduates in the population by just 1% can drive an 18% increase in per-capita patent filings. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that H-1B recipients also create jobs: in fact, research has shown that for each visa that’s issued, 1.83 jobs are created for American workers.

Reforms needed

Of course, the H-1B program still needs reform. Right now, in fact, Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Chuck Grassley are pushing a bipartisan bill — backed by everyone from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, to Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama — that would do more to protect and reassure American workers, while also imposing fines and other penalties on employers who abuse the system.

That’s a good first step: We need a skilled-worker visa system that we can trust along with the enforcement mechanisms to catch and punish bad actors. But we must also recognize that the vast majority of immigrants play by the rules. It’s American companies that sometimes play dirty, not their immigrant employees.

Beyond that, preventing such fraud won’t fix our problems. Even if you remove all the multiple filings, there would still be 350,000 skilled immigrants vying for just 85,000 visas. That’s a 14% increase from last year, and a clear sign that the H1B visa program fails to address employer need. This bottleneck, more than anything else, is why fraud exists in the first place. Companies  can’t find talent in the American labor force and they’re willing to tamper with the rules to address worker shortages. We clearly need tough action against such companies, but we also need a system that meets the demands of our modern economy.

In the Triangle

Here in the Triangle, with our amazing universities and tech companies, we see that need more than most. Over 70% of full-time grad students in fields such as electrical engineering or computer science are foreign nationals — and as things stand, most of those bright, American-educated young people are forced to take their skills and training overseas after they graduate.     This week, Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, introduced the 2023 US Citizenship Act, which makes it easier for STEM advanced degree holders to stay, improves access to Green Cards to workers in low wage industries, provided dependents of H-1B holders work authorization, and prevents the children of H-1B holders from aging out of the system.    Our Congresswoman Deb Ross  has also led on this issue as well.

Like every visa program, the H-1B system is vulnerable to abuse, but much of this fraud is the result of arbitrary visa caps. So yes, let’s reform the H-1B system to eliminate spurious repeat filings and punish bad actors. But let’s also take this opportunity to rethink the broken H-1B quota system — and give North Carolina’s employers the freedom to hire the workers they need to drive growth for everyone.