Work Visas and the New Indentured Servitude

Opportunity in America is often conditioned on a number of outside factors — race, educational achievements, or, as today’s article discusses, citizenship status. Higher ed writer Valerie Harris, who blogs over at, takes a look at the H1B visa debate currently pending in Congress. Valerie’s thoughts add a new dimension to prior discussions on what it takes to get ahead — and, importantly, how we define equality.

Reforming Work Visas to Benefit from Every Masters Degree Earned in the US

Valerie Harris

Higher education is today considered a universal standard of career preparedness – and as a result, the enrollment of international students has sharply increased at most American colleges and universities in recent years. While pursuing a degree in the United States often affords foreign students a wide range of opportunities, students are often limited by their temporary citizen status when it comes to looking for career opportunities in the U.S. market.

As fewer American-born students are attending graduate school, more international students are filling their spots in the classroom every year. In Fall 2011, the International Institute of Education surveyed roughly 750 American colleges and universities. More than half of the respondents reported an increase in foreign student enrollments, while 20 percent reported declines and 27 percent reported no increase at all. Furthermore, 60.4 percent of institutions that enrolled more than 1,000 international students reported increases. Slightly more than two-thirds of doctoral/research-based institutions recorded an increase of international students, while roughly half of both baccalaureate and master’s institutions saw their foreign enrollments rise. At 31.5 percent, two-year institutions recorded the lowest number of international enrollment increases – but this figure still exceeded the number of two-year schools where declines were reported.

While many foreign students are able to successfully earn a college degree, many encounter post-graduation problems with their H1B visas. This temporary (non-immigrant) visa enables American companies to employ foreign workers on the condition that the visa-holder has earned a bachelor’s degree in his/her field. Furthermore, the visa is limited to one employer; if the worker is fired or laid off by that company, he/she must apply for a new visa with a different organization or face deportation from the United States. As Brian Grow of BusinessWeek noted, many H1B visa-holders do not benefit from this preferential treatment. He likened them to “indentured servants” whose U.S. citizenship is at the mercy of their employers. This “sponsorship” essentially deprives educated workers of their upward mobility within the American corporate sector – and without an employer to co-sign the H1B visa, entrepreneurial ventures are entirely out of the question.

This controversial work visa program has also produced detrimental effects on the national economy and unemployment rates. During a 2011 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Policy subcommittee, Professor Ronil Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology articulated a core problem with H1B visa issuance. “The principal goal of the H-1B visa program is to bring in foreign workers who complement the U.S. workforce,” he said. “Instead, loopholes in the program have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in America.” This program has resulted in depressed stateside wages and a higher number of companies who ship their operations overseas. These complaints are bolstered by a recent report published by the Government Accountablity Office, which found that an inordinate number of H1B visas are issued to staffing agencies based in India that are likelier to outsource positions.

Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman from Texas, supports the H1B program – but during the hearing, he argued that the manner in which these visas are awarded ought to be revised in order to ensure that every H1B holder is significantly contributing to the economy. He noted that some of the occupations covered by H1B visas include fashion modeling, photography, social work and culinary arts. “There is nothing wrong with those occupations, but I’m not sure that foreign fashion models and pastry chefs are as crucial to our success in the global economy as are computer scientists.”

However, students who earn degrees in math, science or technology fields are becoming scarce. A third subcommittee member, John Conyers Jr., has argued that international students who complete college should receive green cards instead of H1B visas. Since H1B holders are unable to transfer their visas to a different employer in the event that they are dismissed from the sponsoring organization, many opt to return home and find employment overseas. Furthermore, green cards would save workers from feeling that they had to remain with a company that mistreats them or compensates them with inadequate wages – a rampant problem within the H1B work program, the subcommittee noted.

By modifying the criteria for H1B applications, allowing visa holders to transfer to different companies and awarding more visas to domestic organizations, the federal government would mitigate the core concerns stemming from the problematic H1B program. While our national economy is heavily reliant on contributions from foreign workers, the government should also recognize that the current system by which international students obtain employment in the U.S. is full of costly loopholes.

One thought on “Work Visas and the New Indentured Servitude

  1. Worrying about non Americans getting jobs after graduate and post graduate school is the least of our country’s worries. What about American’s lack of ability to get into these programs. $$$! I like 4 more courses to complete bachelor’s. I already had over half classes required before starting this trek. I owe $30,000! How can I go on for higher degree? How will I afford bills, eat, and paying back what I owe? I’m sorry for these immigrants, but I was born here and they are getting all the opportunity!

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