U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) called the State Dept.'s L-1B visa for skilled IT workers a type of "stealth immigration" that is taking jobs from the skilled American technology workforce. The visa was created to make it possible for international companies with a presence in the U.S. to bring their employees from overseas.
However, Feinstein says the program is being abused by software outsourcing companies, who are bringing IT workers from abroad and placing them at U.S. companies. According to the State Depart., it is not permissible to use L-1's for outsourcing, but thousands have nevertheless been used for that purpose.
Foreign workers applying for the L-1B must have "specialized knowledge" to qualify for the visa. The visas are supposed to be used for intra-company transfers and not for generic IT jobs. Applications for L-1B's increased 10 percent in the first quarter of this year.
At a Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing Tuesday, senators heard testimony from Patricia Fluno, an Orlando, Fla., computer programmer recently laid off by Siemens Technologies. Fluno lost her $98,000 a year job when Siemens transferred her job and 15 others to Tata Consulting Services, an Indian company.
Fluno said she was required to train the incoming Tata workers and claimed they were paid approximately a third of her salary. She called the experience "humiliating." IT Industry representatives at the hearing agreed Fluno's case was very likely a violation of the L1-B visa requirements.
Fluno's case and others like it have prompted several bills in both the House and the Senate to reduce the number of L-1B visas and to require employers to first seek U.S. workers before turning to the L-1B route. The bills would also require employers using L1-B visa to fill positions to pay prevailing U.S. wages to visa holders.
"The L-1 program is critically important to U.S. multi-national information technology firms as they compete globally," said ITAA President Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). "However, as with any complex immigration program, we see some possible areas of improvement in its administration by the Departments of State and Homeland Security to insure that legitimate users have access and to prevent possible abuses."
Concurrent with the hearing, the ITAA released a new white paper on the L-1 visa, focusing on the administration of visas for foreign workers brought to the U.S. to work on information technology projects.
"Our paper sets forth some suggestions on how to clarify its administration. The government must clarify the definition of 'specialized knowledge,' and use that to determine whether applicants qualify," Miller said. "We offer examples of what does and does not constitute 'specialized knowledge' in the IT field. We want to work with the government officials who run the L-1 program to ease its use for legitimate employers and eliminate its use for workers who are not properly qualified."
The paper gives specific examples from the IT industry of what does and does not qualify as specialized knowledge. Knowledge of software programs, programming languages such as COBOL or Java, and tools that are widely known does not, in most cases, by itself qualify as "specialized knowledge," though the worker may be eligible to enter the U.S. under other immigration categories.
According to the ITAA, advanced knowledge of an employer's special process or methodology that is not generally held throughout the industry could be considered specialized knowledge and would be an acceptable case for applying for an L-1 visa.