Congressman explains his H-1B visa opposition

FRAMINGHAM (10/01/2003) - Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and chairman of the U.S. Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, has long been an immigration watchdog and opponent of illegal immigration. On July 9, he introduced H.R. 2688 "to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to repeal H-1B visas for temporary workers." Tancredo's dogged advocacy of immigration reform has made him a maverick within his own party. His bill was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, where it never was scheduled for a hearing. He recently spoke with Computerworld about his opposition to unfettered immigration and guest-worker visas.

Please tell us about your proposed legislation and why you filed it. It's a very simple bill. It simply abolishes that category of visas which has been so abused. In the last five, six years, the use of H1-B visas has exploded because industry has discovered it's a way to cut labor costs, to displace American workers and reap financial rewards. We've got 800,000 to 1 million people in this country with H-1B visas. The INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security] doesn't keep track of them; we don't really know how many are here. Out best guess is that very few have returned home. Another 500,000 to 700,000 jobs have been exported overseas by the IT industry. The IT industry has taken a huge hit. We've exported jobs and reduced the pay of those that are left -- all this because companies have seen a loophole that allows them to displace American workers.

We're worried about this because American citizens are out of work or underemployed, in jobs paying far less than they were making before, in less-skilled jobs. A lot of these folks from offshore are coming here and learning the jobs and then being sent back home with all of the knowledge they've gained here. Then all the jobs move offshore.

Is the number of H-1B visas authorized per year going to decline in any case? The number of H-1B visas goes down from 195,000 to 65,000 on Oct 1. The IT industry has decided to not fight the reduction. There's a lot of heat that's been generated about their activity, and they've found a new visa category, L1, which is even better. There's no cap on L1 visas and few restrictions. It's good for seven years, and there's no way to determine if they're coming here to replace U.S. workers. We've seen a 58% increase in L1 visas in the last year, while we've seen a corresponding decrease in H-1B.

Has your opposition to the H-1B visas created controversy? Hell, yes. I take a lot of heat in the Republican Party. Karl Rove [political adviser to President Bush] told me I would never darken the doors of the White House because of the way I am about immigration. Somebody else told me I'd become the Kobe Bryant of India. I'm getting a lot of negative press in India. The president came out against my bill. The president was at a fund-raiser in Jackson, Miss., a little while ago and was asked about my bill by Indian IT workers there. He said he opposed my bill. He raised $1.5 million at this fund-raiser, and the only place we found out about it was in an Indian newspaper. The industry will fight it like crazy, but we've established the goal line further down the field so they have at least stopped going for an increase."

Are you going to try and restrict L1 visas? A couple of bills already have been introduced to restrict L1 visas. One is by U.S. Rep. John Mica [Republican-Florida] introduced May 17, and another is from U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro [Democrat-Connecticut], introduced July 10. There may be some legitimate needs for L1 visas, like intracompany transfers, but we're trying to tighten up considerably. It's like trying to stop a flood with a sieve. It's true we have a global economy, and it's going to be a difficult thing to control. But we can't simply move all the jobs to India. I'm sure there is going to be plenty of opposition. The president has not said what he's going to do regarding these two bills.

What kind of support does the IT industry in the U.S. provide for the visas? Those supporting visas get lots of support from the IT industry. They don't want to go against them. Republicans are trying to make inroads in Silicon Valley. Most of the contributions coming from there go to Democrats. It seems we're trying to outbid the Democrats for Silicon Valley's support. Sun, Intel, Oracle, all the big IT companies, give to parties and to corporate PACs [political action committees]. Their high-level management gets together and gives to their PAC, who gives to the president.

What kind of support did you receive for your bill to restrict H-1B visas? Some groups of IT workers have been very helpful. We've received a lot of visibility on their Web sites, but unfortunately they don't have any money.

Do you think the temporary worker visas will be an election issue next year? It would be hard to make it one unless the Democrats can offer a clear alternative, which so far they have not. They'd have to come out real strong, offer amendments to various bills for funding and whatnot, to position them as an alternative.

How do the H-1B visas compare to guest-worker visas for Mexican agricultural and service economy workers? H-1B is only for highly skilled workers. Nobody bothers with the H-2A visas for agricultural workers; it's easier to slip across the border than to apply for a H-2A visa. The H-2A visa has been made irrelevant. The H-1B is far easier and cheaper to get than the H-2A visa. H-1B is a cheap and simple process; all it takes is a single Department of Labor form.

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