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Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

H1B visas: not just IT issue, says expert

Senators should consider local and long-term effects of proposed immigration changes, IU researcher says

EDITORS: Lois Wise researches patterns of use of H1B visas and is available to comment on how increasing H1B caps as described in the proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act would affect different regions and economic sectors. To speak with Wise, contact Elisabeth Andrews, IU Media Relations, 812-855-2153 and

There is a high demand for H1B visas within and beyond information technology (IT), but their use may be fostering dependence on a foreign labor market, said Lois Wise, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs who studies "insourcing" of short-term specialized workers into the U.S. Below, she describes some of the factors and consequences of expanding specialized foreign employment.

  • IT is declining in terms of share of H1B visas. "IT was the reason for the development of the permit, but the visas are now very, very widely applied in many occupational groups including teachers, doctors and state government administrators. IT still has about two thirds of all H1B workers, but that share has been steadily declining."
  • IT employers desire young, foreign workers. "The great majority of workers hired on H1B visas are between the ages of 25 and 34. Within the IT industry there exists a taste for discrimination that favors young people and also favors international employees. Call it a 'taste for globalization,' but there's a reinforcement and validation of the perception that programmers from India and Pakistan have unique problem-solving approaches that bring added value to American organizations."
  • Bold, unqualified statements are generally suspect. "Unqualified claims about the shortage of U.S. workers or the impact of the legislation need to be scrutinized. Shortages may indeed exist for some jobs in some places, but in other cases, workers are available. We may not be able to fill the position of state prison correction officer, for example, but we could most likely find someone to serve as state welfare case worker. We may have a shortage of Spanish-speaking teachers in a state with mandatory bilingual education but no evidence of shortage in other states. Similarly, the effect of insourcing on wage rates for professional jobs is complex and needs to be assessed in terms of a particular occupational group in a particular economic region. Finally, the costs of immigration also play out differently and are partly related to the kinds of workers that are being insourced, the types of industries that are employing them, and the level of government and types of services it offers immigrants and their dependants."
  • Differences between professional and non-professional workers can not be overlooked in formulating effective legislation. "The act's proposed 2-1-2-1-2 year employment cycle (requiring workers to return to their home countries for a year after each two years in the U.S.) may have the effect of reducing permanent stays, but it lacks compatibility with professional jobs where employees must learn organizational and group norms, and methods to perform effectively in coordinated tasks. The start-up costs may be too great for the employer, and the employee similarly faces additional start-up and transportation costs that may function as a disincentive for employment. The difficulty of enforcing the 2-1-2-1-2 employment cycle should not be underestimated, and the question of which level of government could most effectively perform this task needs to be addressed."
  • Teachers are a significant labor pool for H1Bs. "One area in which the demand for labor really isn't being met by U.S. citizens is within states where schools are required by law to offer bilingual education. Texas is the biggest user of H1Bs for this purpose, with five-to-six thousand people hired in that state alone. States requiring bilingual education or funding English language proficiency programs address these shortages by insourcing foreign teachers, but education, in general, is a fast growing occupational group for H1B users.
  • Math and science teachers also needed. "There is a shortage of math and science teachers around the country. H1B workers are being recruited to fill this need."
  • Foreign doctors and nurses dominate many hospitals. "Some research hospitals would collapse without the H1B visa. Some of the reasons for hiring foreign doctors and nurses include locations in undesirable areas and wages that are not at the top of the scale. Some of the problems that might come with insourcing include less continuity of care and cultural differences that lead to communication errors, especially with female nurses who don't feel comfortable speaking up around male doctors."
  • Students may shy away from foreign-dominated jobs. "One of the downsides of bringing in foreign labor to meet existing demand is that students get the message that employers don't need them for those jobs. Addressing demand shortages through insourcing professional workers can send the wrong signals down the labor supply pipeline, so to the extent that there are shortages of U.S. workers equipped to fill these positions today, we may be perpetuating the problem by moderating demand forces."
  • Opportunities for fraud. "The law dictates that an H1B worker must receive a fair market wage, but a big obstacle in terms of detecting fraud comes with the title or level being assigned to the worker. One way to pay employees less is to give them an official title lower than the actual level at which they are functioning. Because these are all highly specialized positions, there is no easy way for an administrator to determine where a programmer or pharmacist should be on the pay scale."
  • Legislators: local considerations. "Legislators who are looking at this act need to familiarize themselves with the industries, occupations and markets that rely on foreign labor within the region they represent in order to best advance the interests of their constituents and the nation."

To speak with Wise, contact Elisabeth Andrews, 812-855-2153 and