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Home > Business > Interviews

The Rediff Interview/Ron Hira, author, Outsourcing America

Why the H-1B programme needs fixing

April 23, 2007

Ron Hira, an expert on offshore outsourcing, has testified before Congress twice on its implications. Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, has given more than 80 invited talks on offshore outsourcing at universities, to policymakers, as to the general public.

Hira co-authored Outsourcing America, published by the American Management Association, and which was a finalist for best business book for the Publishers Marketing Association's Benjamin Franklin Awards.

He received the IEEE-USA President's Special Citation Award in 2006 'for furthering public understanding of an economic trend that has profound implications for the engineering profession through his book.'

An Indian American whose parents immigrated to the United States from India in 1967, thanks to the employment-based green card, Hira spoke to Senior Editor Suman Guha Mozumder about his gripes with the way H-1B visas are being administered.

Going by your public lectures, it seems you are not against the H-1B visa, but perhaps about the way it is being implemented.

That is correct. I believe the H-1B programme has served a very positive role in the United States. This is one way that the best and the brightest from abroad can come to the US, but the implementation has not kept up with changes and ways in which businesses have started using it.

Ron HiraYou said recently that some American companies are using the H-1B programme to relocate their business interests to countries like India -- in that guest workers on H-1B visas are trained here for a couple of years and then sent back to further the business interests of their American companies. Can that be reversed, given the rising trend of offshoring?

I don't think that is right way of framing [the question]. First, the proponents of the H-1B programme never mention that kind of use of the program. What they talk about is bridging the immigration [through H-1Bs]. My point is, if you want to make public policy, if you want to make special exceptions for certain employers, namely the high-tech employers, then you must talk at least how it is used in the real world.

Basically, the industry is using [the H-1B visa system] in quite a different way. I think outsourcing is going to happen and it is anybody's guess at what point it will saturate. It is very clear that it is increasing very rapidly.

The question is, 'Should the US have an immigration policy that exonerates it?' It is one thing to have US engineers compete with their cousins in Mumbai; it is another for them to compete with folks next door. I think there is a lot of damage to the labour here (in the US).

Could you elaborate on what you said the other day -- that the H-1B system does not meet with the values or principles of Americans. What were you implying?

The politicians who promote it, for example, Senator [Edward M] Kennedy and Senator [John] McCain. Their legislation [on H-1Bs] passed last year in the Senate.

If you listen to their public statements´┐Ż For example, I quote Kennedy: 'We must all agree that Americans must be hired first.' He is espousing a principle or value and it is a bit surprising that the law does not require that. I am wondering why he would not introduce a law that would uphold the principle he is espousing.

The same thing with the Bush administration -- the same kind of statements about guest workers' programs in general [are made] that these should be used as a last resort, that they should be used only when American workers cannot be found. If they really believe that, we should have a law [on that]. That way, if they don't believe that, we should have a discussion.

Don't you think it is already clear in the H-1B laws that a company can hire a foreign worker only when a qualified US worker is not available?

That is absolutely my point. Most journalists and politicians are misinformed. In fact, I have quoted directly from a Department of Labor Strategic Plan that clearly says you do not have to look for an American worker first and you can even displace one. There is a huge misconception of how our H-1B programme operates in practice.

There are misstatements by politicians, but there are also misstatements by top newspapers as well. The Los Angeles Times last year made this mistake. The San Diego Union Tribune [did that] a couple of months ago and then The Wall Street Journal, during the height of immigration debate, made the same mistake.

Are you hopeful about the reform of the H-1B and Green Card processing system? Also, how do you react to this new bipartisan bill seeking security through regularised immigration, co-sponsored by Representatives Luis Gutierrez [Democrat, Illinois] and Jeff Flake [Republican, Arizona] in Congress?

[It] does not have any reform of the H-1 B programme. What it has got is an expansion of the programme.

So it is not going to address any of the concerns that you expressed just now?

That is correct.

Why do you think it is happening -- Congress not addressing these concerns?

I think what you see here is politics at work. Microsoft is one of the biggest and largest political contributors in the country. Both political parties want to court the hi-tech industry -- the Democrats because they are hopeful of winning the Presidential election next year. So, this is basically hardball politics at play.

The universities are also aligning with the tech industry. On the flip side, US workers are not represented by anybody. The labor unions, according to latest figures, represent 7.6 per cent of the US workforce. In the hi-tech workforce, they are hardly represented at all. So, talking about reforms, the reality is that politically no one is making any contribution.

The other thing you see is the media. You have got The Washington Post two or three weeks ago, and the op-ed column in The Economist, a UK magazine -- they are basically saying that America does not want to expand the H-1 B programme. So, I think there is a lot of misconception.

If you have to resolve the dilemma between attracting the best and brightest in the world to the US and keep American interests in mind, what would you prescribe?

I think to way to do that is to fix the H-1B system. The other thing we really need to look at more carefully is the Green Card quota system. Does it make sense that the H-1B has no per country quota -- we have half of the H-1B beneficiaries from India -- but the Green Card system has a per country quota (seven percent)? How does that make sense? You have one system that has no per country quota feeding another system that has a per country quota.

I think we need to think of this whole process. If the goal is to capture the best and the brightest -- and I think most people will agree with that -- then you have got to fix the H-1B; you have got to fix the employment-based Green Card and the L-1.

The H-1 B and the L-1 have been traditional feeders [of the Green Card system]. It may be that they will come up with something wherein they scrap this whole system and come up with a more sensible approach, even increasing the lottery visas based on skill levels or a point system. I do not think those things are in place right now because they would be pretty radical changes in terms of what we do in terms of immigration.

But, maybe, that is what we need.

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