US tech visa battle hots up over male bias in granting H-1B forms

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley has re-introduced an H-1B reform bill that once again takes aim at offshore outsourcers, and on Monday he got more ammunition for that battle.


 U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley has re-introduced an H-1B reform bill that once again takes aim at offshore outsourcers, and Monday he got more ammunition for that battle.

It came during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform and women. Testifying on the high-skills aspects of this issue, Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, said that more than eight-out-of-10 of the visas used by offshore outsourcing firms are held by males. "That's outrageous," she said. Offshore firms use about half of the H-1B visas.

Panetta, who also served as director of the IEEE's Women in Engineering Committee, was especially critical of the H-1B visa overall, and said it was being used to replace American workers with lower wage workers.

But for women, the problem is especially acute, Panetta argued. "It's hard to get promoted when you don't get hired in the first place," said Panetta. She said the existence of a preferred pipeline for new hires has a "discouraging effects on independent American women considering the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields."

Women are underrepresented in technology, making up about 26% of the US workforce, according to US labour data. In the proportion of women in the IT workforce is lower.

Panetta said that hen the vast majority H-1B workers are men, "this does not make for a diverse workforce or work environment."

Panetta's testimony, and this hearing, is just one more chapter of an already intense efforts to shape a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The senators involved in this issue, led by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), are expected to produce a comprehensive bill, possibly next month.

Grassley's bill is intended to influence the broader immigration effort, and what it seeks is very similar to bills he has co-sponsored in the past with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act would reform the H-1B visa in a number of ways, including raising wages, limiting H-1B visas to 50% of a firm's workforce, and requiring H-1B employers to "make a good faith effort to hire Americans first."

The bill would also double potential administrative fines for violations and requires employers to file W-2 tax forms of H-1B workers with the U.S. Dept. of Labor.

Durbin wasn't part of this announcement, although that may be due to the fact that he is a member of the core group working with Schumer on a comprehensive bill.

Panetta's determination that the vast majority of H-1B visas workers used by offshore outsourcers are men (85%) is based on the IEEE-USA's own findings. The organization has been trying to get federal data to discover the exact male/female percentage of H-1B visa holders, but has been unable, so far, to do so. Panetta urged the committee to pursue the data issue with federal agencies.

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