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After Mass Layoffs, Silicon Valley Renews Lobbying Biden to Lift Cap on Foreign Workers
Google, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, and other tech giants use the H-1B visa program as a source of cheap labor, according to critics.
Mere months after record layoffs, a trade group representing Google, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, and other technology giants is pressuring President Joe Biden’s administration to allow more temporary foreign workers to work in the United States through the H-1B visa program for people with specialized skills.
The latest data showing surging applications for the visas “makes clear that there is not enough H-1B visas authorized by Congress to meet U.S. employer demand,” Compete America, a group that represents Silicon Valley firms on immigration policy issues, argued in a June 1 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
The letter calls for changes designed to expedite and streamline the visa application process. In the appeal to Mayorkas, Compete America claims that the current annual H-1B visa cap of 85,000 “remains insufficient to meet the needs of our economy.”
Metadata from the letter shows that it was edited by multiple tech attorneys, including Barbara Leen, an immigration attorney for Microsoft. Peter Schiron, an assistant general counsel and immigration advisor at Deloitte, a consulting firm that advises corporate interests on outsourcing strategy, also participated in the editing process.
The letter was also organized by TechNet and the Information Technology Industry Council, two lobbying groups that also represent Silicon Valley interests.
Earlier this year, the same firms demanding more access to foreign labor laid off tens of thousands of American workers. Microsoft laid off over 10,000 employees. Google laid off 12,000 employees. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, laid off 21,000 employees. Amazon laid off 27,000 employees. And Salesforce announced a 10% reduction in its workforce, a cut estimated to affect about 8,000 people.
In a number of cases, those same companies appear to have swiftly replaced the workers they terminated with recipients of H-1B visas. As I previously reported on this Substack, Amazon, Google, and other firms applied for special foreign worker visas in February and March, just weeks after announcing layoffs. Records released by the Department of Labor show that those firms received approval from the Biden administration to hire H-1B visa recipients for computer engineering, programming, and design roles.
But the tech giants complain that even the current number of visas that the federal government awards them is insufficient. Currently, the law allows for 65,000 new H1-B visas per year, along with 20,000 visas for individuals with a master’s degree or higher. Firms may apply to renew the visas. As many as 600,000 foreign workers currently work at U.S. firms through the program.
Compete America has likewise long played a controversial role in advocating for more foreign visas on behalf of major technology companies such as Microsoft and Facebook. The organization, which dates to 1996 and was originally called American Business for Legal Immigration, has pushed for expanded foreign visas in nearly every major immigration overhaul.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, testified in 2008 before Congress on the issue, demanding a dramatic increase in the H-1B visa cap. Facebook, which paid to settle charges that it violated immigration law by discriminating against American workers in favor of H-1B visa holders, has similarly made the visas a central demand among its lobbyists.
Research suggests that these tech companies favor the program because it saves them money, rather than because it fills an otherwise unfillable labor gap. Although the H-1B visa program bolsters corporate profits, the use of foreign workers in the tech industry has depressed wages by as much as 10.8%.
The H-1B program began in 1990 to deal with labor shortages in high-tech industries. But there is evidence that companies have begun to rely on it to reduce labor costs. Despite a provision of the H-1B visa program statute that requires the use of foreign workers only when qualified Americans are not available, corporations routinely fail to comply with that requirement.
The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank that receives some funding from labor unions, has documented major corporations’ widespread abuse of the H-1B visa program, including systematic underpayment of foreign workers under the program.
Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook take advantage of the foreign worker program "in order to legally pay many of their H-1B workers below the local median wage for the jobs they fill," EPI experts wrote in a May 2020 report on the topic.
Those practices continue to the present day, according to EPI. "Rather than turning to the H-1B program as a last resort when U.S. workers cannot be found, most employers hire H-1B workers because they can be underpaid and are de facto indentured to the employer," the think tank wrote on its website in April.
Companies are keen to exploit the H-1B visa program because of the power it gives them over a subset of highly skilled workers. Foreign nationals working in the United States on an H-1B visa retain legal status in the U.S. tied to employment, making it nearly impossible for them to bargain for better working conditions or higher pay.
Year after year, news reports emerge of businesses replacing American workers with H-1B visa recipients. In some cases, companies have instructed laid-off American workers to train their foreign visa-holder replacements.
In 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), led a bipartisan group of senators urging the Obama administration to crack down on corporations’ use of foreign visas to undercut American labor.
That year, Disney and Southern California Edison, a utility interest, had forced laid-off workers to train their foreign H-1B replacements.
"A number of U.S. employers, including some large, well-known publicly traded corporations, have reportedly laid off thousands of American workers and replaced them with H-1b visa holders," the senators wrote in a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, and then-Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. "To add insult to injury, many of the replaced American employees report that they have been forced to train the foreign workers who are taking their jobs."
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