Homeland Security Calls For Visa Reform

By Staff Report

Apr. 11, 2006

A U.S. guest worker program is vulnerable to abuses, says a recent federal report, and if Congress agrees, reforms could affect tech employers in particular.

The controversial L-1 visa program, which allows companies to import overseas employees, could potentially be misused in a number of ways, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General says in a report released this year.

Among its findings, the report spots possible trouble in both varieties of the intracompany transfer visa. L-1A visas are reserved for managers or executives. According to the report, federal officials “often find it difficult to be confident that a firm truly intends using an imported worker in such a capacity.” L-1B visas are for employees who possess “specialized knowledge.” According to the report, government officials believe they have little choice but to approve almost all L-1B petitions because the term “specialized knowledge” is so broadly defined.

Some vulnerabilities of the program can only be reduced through “legislative action to redefine the category,” the report says. It suggests greater clarity is needed for both the L-1A and L-1B categories.

More than 40,000 L-1 petitions have been approved each of the past four years, according to the study. L-1 visas have come under fire in recent years from critics who claim the program has been used to undermine U.S. information technology workers and make it easier to send work overseas. L-1 defenders say guest worker visas help slow offshoring and give U.S. employers vital access to foreign talent.

The new study states, “Foreign IT workers may indeed have affected employment opportunities for American IT workers, but the L-1B visa would appear to be only a very small element of the problem.”

Technology companies may have the most at stake, should Congress decide to tinker with the visa program. The report finds that from 1999 to 2004, nine of the 10 firms that petitioned for the most L-1 workers were computer and IT-related outsourcing service firms that specialize in labor from India, including IBM Global Services, Hewlett-Packard and Wipro Technologies.

Ed Frauenheim

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