Forget the wall. Trump’s big immigration war may focus on visas

Hank Nguyen and his daughter Audrey Nguyen in their Dublin, California, home. Nguyen is among the UCSF IT workers about to lose his job.
Hank Nguyen and his daughter Audrey Nguyen in their Dublin, California, home. Nguyen is among the UCSF IT workers about to lose his job. Modesto Bee

It’s hard for him to admit, but Bizhan Tabatabian thinks Donald Trump actually might be able to help American tech workers like him keep their jobs.

The 48-year-old systems engineer at University of California, San Francisco didn’t vote for Trump and he says he doesn’t even like the real estate mogul; he changes positions too often. But Tabatabian hopes Trump keeps one particular promise and that’s to protect American workers who are losing their jobs to outsourcing.

“He still won’t be my guy, but I’ll have to give a nod in his direction,” said Tabatabian. “I don’t have to like him to recognize good work.”

Tabatabian learned earlier this year that he and about 100 colleagues would be out of work as of February as the school takes steps to reduce costs and outsource their jobs.

What gives Tabatabian a bit of hope is Trump’s campaign pledge to protect the jobs of American workers. In announcing his priorities for the first 100 days, Trump vowed to direct the Department of Labor to “investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker.”

It was the first promise Trump made on immigration after the election – not building a border wall or deporting millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.

While it doesn’t generate the same headlines as building a massive wall, the visa issue is almost as explosive. Critics of offshoring say a U.S. visa program that lets in foreign workers is often the first step to moving American jobs overseas.

The H-1B visa program issues work permits to as many as 85,000 foreign workers a year with “highly specialized knowledge” to fill jobs when qualified Americans can’t be found. Tech giants such as Facebook and other corporate entities like Bank of America and Caterpillar have long argued that the 85,000 annual cap is still too few and that they need to bring in more foreign tech workers because they can’t find enough highly-skilled American workers.

But critics of the program say H-1B visas are increasingly being abused and that American workers are being laid off as U.S. companies send work to outsourcing companies that employ thousands of H-1B workers.

The possibility that a Trump administration might target the H-1B visa program worries employers who depend on it.

“I personally am terrified for what the Trump administration could mean for H-1B visas and access to them,” said Onyema Ezeh, an immigration attorney in Charlotte, N.C., who has spoken with local CEOs about the issue. “The threat of the H-1B visas . . . being limited is a real one, and one that would hurt companies. And that’s why they’re having sleepless nights at this point.”

But others say the increasing dominance of the program by outsourcing firms shows its rife with abuse. Their allegation is that firms use the program to bring in workers who get trained on how the work is done, then return to their home country to train workers to do the work there.

The government is allowing the H-1B program to be used to speed up the offshoring of high-wage tech jobs, said Ronil Hira, a professor at Howard University who studies visa programs.

Of the 10 companies that received the most H-1B visas in 2014, eight specialized in outsourcing or provided outsourcing services, according to Hira’s analysis.

India is the primary beneficiary, Hira says, citing his own analysis of trade date that he said shows that roughly 1.7 million jobs have been offshored to India since 2000 when virtually none of those jobs were previously done in that country. Some of those jobs would have been transferred from the United States to India anyway, he acknowledges, but the H-1B program has made it easier.

“If we had done something about this 15 years ago, we would have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs that have been offshored,” Hira said. “Globalization is going to happen but we shouldn’t have government pushing jobs off-shore.”

The U.S. government doesn’t track offshoring numbers.

He still won’t be my guy, but I’ll have to give a nod in his direction.

Bizhan Tabatabian

The University of California’s decision to eliminate nearly 100 tech jobs at its San Francisco campus has been assailed by both Democrats and Republicans as an example of sending good American jobs overseas. School officials hired a global consulting company, HCL, to undertake the task. HCL is one of the biggest recipients of H-1B visas.

UCSF officials say contracting with HCL will save the university more than $30 million over five years while enabling increased IT capacity and improved cyber security. Forty-nine people will lose their jobs and another 48 unfilled positions will be eliminated.

“IT costs on the university’s clinical side nearly tripled between 2011 and 2016, driven by the introduction of the electronic medical record and increased digital connectivity,” the school said in a statement. “This growth rate is not sustainable.”

Barbara French, vice chancellor for strategic communications and university releations at UCSF, said none of the laidoff employees will be replaced with H-1B holders. But when pressed, school officials acknowledged that H-1B holders had been used in the “first phase” of the transition.

Among the members of Congress who’ve raised concerns about UCSF’s plans are Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Judiciary Committee, and California Democratic Reps. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, Zoe Lofgren, Barbara Lee, and Mark DeSaulnier.

Among their worries: the program could easily be expanded to any of the 10 campuses that serve 238,000 students and employs more than 190,000 faculty and staff.

“The layoffs are viewed as a ‘pilot’ that other IT departments in the University of California system will be watching and that may result in layoffs of IT employees across the ten-campus system,” Grassley wrote in a letter to University President Janet Napolitano. “It is clear that the University is seeking to replace American workers with lower-cost foreign workers.”

Grassley noted that university has petitioned for H-1B visas for at least 3,995 workers over the last decade, including 600 in 2015.

Napolitano’s involvement is particularly ironic; when she was Obama’s secretary of homeland security she vowed to fight abuse of such visa programs during questioning by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

“Our top obligation is to American workers, making sure American workers have jobs,” Napolitano told Durbin during a 2009 hearing when the senator expressed dismay at outsourcing.

Such outsourcing has hit IT departments across the United States. Miami-based Carnival Corp. is eliminating 200 jobs, including 140 in South Florida, from its IT department. The workers are being offered positions by Capgemini, a Paris-based firm that focuses on consulting, technology and outsourcing.

Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival Corp., told the Miami Herald that the company is transitioning the positions to “help the company keep pace with the evolving technology environment.” The cruise company currently employs more than 300 IT workers, he said.

But Sara Blackwell, a lawyer for some of the employees, said the company really is hiring the workers only temporarily to help train workers overseas to do their jobs. If they don’t agree, they lose their jobs, she said.

“Those are their choices,” Blackwell said. “They have mortgages. It’s Christmas time.”

Blackwell said time will tell if Trump follows through with his promises, but she applauded the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as attorney general, and other advisers who have been fighting the issue.

Other Trump appointees aren’t viewed so favorably. Trump’s pick to be labor secretary, Andy Puzder, the CEO of the parent company of the Hardees and Carls Jr. fast food restaurant chains, has advocated legalizing undocumented workers, who make up a major portion of the restaurant industry work force.

“It is disconcerting to see that someone with a history of public statements in favor of immigration expansionism . . . has been appointed to head the department that is supposed to protect American workers from unfair foreign labor competition,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration-reduction organization.

At the University of California, San Francisco, a group of HCL workers with what current workers described as “heavy accents” arrived this month to get training from those losing their jobs. Tabatabian thinks it’s likely too late for Trump to save his job, but he said he wants to speak out in hopes that maybe colleagues’ at other campuses could be saved.

“He may not be my guy, but he might make things better for lots of people,” Tabatabian said.

The Charlotte Observer’s Deon Roberts contributed to this report.