Data problems thwart effort to count H-1Bs

WASHINGTON (10/03/2003) - Federal officials don't know how many H-1B visa holders are working in the U.S. because the two systems that collect critical data on visa holders aren't integrated.

That problem was detailed in a long-awaited U.S. General Accounting Office report released this week on the H-1B program's effects on the U.S. workforce. The GAO said its effort to study the matter was hindered on two fronts.

First, key data is missing. One system tracks entries and departures of H-1B holders, and another monitors changes in a visa holder's status, such as loss of employment. But those systems aren't integrated, so the government doesn't know how many visa holders are in the U.S., the GAO said.

Second, the GAO contacted 145 companies to discuss their H-1B use, but only 36 agreed to interviews. While the nearly 50-page report anonymously summarizes the results of the interviews, the GAO warned that because of the small sample size, the results "cannot be viewed as representative of all H-1B employers."

Chris McManes, a spokesman for the U.S. chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., which has opposed the H-1B program, said the small sample "limited the GAO's ability to assess what's really going on."

McManes said the findings support arguments that H-1B workers are being paid less than their U.S.-citizen counterparts, at least in one age bracket. Salaries listed on approved H-1B petitions for either electrical/electronic engineers or systems analyst/programmer analysts who were between 31 and 50 years old were about US$11,000 to $22,000 lower than the salaries reported by U.S. citizens.

But the salaries of H-1B workers 18 to 30 years old were as much as $10,000 higher than those of their U.S. counterparts, which may mean that there are more hires in this age group with advanced degrees.

Thom Stohler, a vice president of the AEA, a trade group representing the high-tech industry that has advocated a higher H-1B visa cap, said the report underscores the need for better data. "We all need to be using the same data, or we cannot have rational a discussion," he said.

The H-1B visa, which allows skilled foreign workers to take jobs in the U.S. for up to six years, is limited by a cap that declined to 65,000 last week when the new federal fiscal year started. The cap had been 195,000 for the past three years.

Vic Goel, a Greenbelt, Md.-based immigration attorney, said the reduced cap will be reached by early next year, in part because about 22,000 pending H-1B applications filed in the last fiscal year will be counted against this year.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is now responsible for immigration policy, is aware of the visa-tracking problem and is developing a consolidated system, according to the GAO.

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