The ever-controversial H-1B visa program is undergoing a fresh round of congressional scrutiny as the U.S. Senate prepares to debate changes to the nation's immigration system as a whole.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday sent letters to nine foreign-based companies (click for PDF) requesting information about their use of the work permits, which allow foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty be employed in the United States for up to six years.
The questions ranged from the number of visa petitions the companies sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last year, to the average age and number of years of experience of the company's H-1B recruits, to a description of the firms' efforts to recruit Americans for the same positions foreigners are ultimately filling.
The senators said they're particularly troubled by statistics showing that many of the top 20 H-1B users in 2006 were consulting firms that recruit foreign workers, only to outsource them to offshore companies.
The politicians also voiced concern at reports that the average annual salary of foreign workers is lower than that of new American graduates and that companies are laying off American workers while keeping H-1B visa holders on their payrolls.
Earlier this year, Grassley and Durbin introduced a bill that would impose a host of obligations on employers before they could make H-1B hires. Among other things, they would have to pledge that they had made a "good faith" effort to hire an American before taking on an H-1B worker and that the foreigner was not displacing a prospective U.S. worker.
Meanwhile, a number of proposals in both chambers seek to elevate the number of H-1B visas, which high tech companies like Microsoft have long argued is necessary to fill gaps in their workforces. Critics of the H-1B system, which include groups representing American programmers and engineers, say there wouldn't be a need to raise the quota if more attempts were made to prevent what they call H-1B fraud and abuse.