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Blumenthal defends bill to increase guestworkers

In what detractors are calling a "wrong turn" in U.S. policy that could lead to outsourcing more American technology jobs, Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has signed on as co-sponsor of a bipartisan immigration bill that eventually could more than double the number of guestworkers currently allowed into the country on controversial H-1B visas.

Blumenthal, in a phone interview, defended his co-sponsorship of the bill, saying it gives him a better vantage point from which to negotiate comprehensive immigration reform - including stronger safeguards to ensure that enforcement of guestworker laws are beefed up so companies that engage in H-1B visa abuses are punished. He also said the bill includes a provision to improve science, technology, math and engineering education in the United States to ensure that more American workers with technology skills are available to hire in the future.

But opponents of H1-B visa increases, citing alleged abuses in the past including the systematic outsourcing of much of Pfizer Inc.'s information technology workforce in Groton starting seven years ago, said the current bill does little to protect U.S. workers.

"This is a terrible bill for American workers," said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University in Washington, and a leading H-1B critic nationwide. "The bill does nothing to stop what happened to the Pfizer employees whose jobs were outsourced. In fact, it makes it much more likely that thousands more Connecticut workers will become victims of the same fate."

"It's appalling to me that Sen. Blumenthal believes he is creating American jobs with this bill," said Jay Palmer, a former worker for the outsourcing firm Infosys who filed a False Claims Act allegation against the company for abusing the guestworker-visa system, leading to a $34 million settlement for the government two years ago. "Until the senator or sponsors of this bill really understand how companies abuse the process, they will not be able to construct a bill that will do justice for the American worker."

Russ Harrison, U.S. government relations director for the New York-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the nation's leading association representing technology workers, said in a statement that last year's comprehensive immigration reform bill was a much better option than this session's so-called Immigration Innovation Act introduced by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and supported by Blumenthal.

The "I-Squared" Act would increase the cap on temporary H-1B visas from the current 65,000 to 115,000, allowing it to reach 195,000 in years of high demand - and perhaps up to 300,000 annually, according to the institute's analysis, because of various exemptions. That would mean as many as 1.8 million foreigners here on H-1B visas that have a duration of up to six years, the organization said, competing against a U.S.-based technology workforce of about 5 million.

"The primary, practical function of the H-1B program is to outsource American high-tech jobs," Harrison said in a statement. "Do the bill's supporters really think that's the direction American immigration policy should go?"

H-1B critic Hira, in testimony to Congress two years ago, covered the litany of complaints about the program, including a charge that the majority of foreign workers using the visa were being hired as "cheap indentured workers"; that American workers were not being given the first shot at employment before H-1Bs were hired; that American workers with similar or superior skills were being replaced by H1-Bs to save money, and that oversight of the program "is nearly nonexistent."

Blumenthal said he is concerned about past abuses of the visa program. But his approach is to try to expand the visa numbers - because so many companies in Connecticut, large and small, have approached him complaining they cannot find skilled workers - while at the same time improving and reforming the program.

"We have a need for more highly skilled workers that eventually should be available from our own country but they are not today," Blumenthal said.

He agreed that the I-Squared bill is far from perfect and needs some tweaks, especially in regards to enforcement that has been severely lacking in the past.

"This law has not been enforced vigorously enough," Blumenthal said. "There has to be more rigor and scrutiny. I'm going to be working to improve this bill. ... If it can't be strengthened, I won't support it."

But Blumenthal pointed out that for every one green card recipient who gets a job utilizing high-tech skills, studies have shown that 2.6 additional jobs are created for American workers.

He is supporting a new provision in the I-Squared bill that would give H-1B workers 60 days to find a new job or be deported if they leave the position for which their visa was approved, figuring that if the worker is in a job with high demand it shouldn't take long to find a new position. This gives workers some latitude in leaving jobs where they are not comfortable, he said, alleviating worries that some companies were turning foreign workers into indentured servants who were afraid to complain about low pay and long hours because of their reliance on sponsors to stay in the United States.

While Harrison of IEEE branded the bill a "wrong turn" and others such as whisteblower Palmer saw a Republican-controlled Congress buckling under pressure to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and other tech titans, Blumenthal pointed out that I-Squared was not a final draft and said he embraced criticisms and insights, expecting that amendments will lead to improvements.

Republicans, he said, would rather deal with issues such as border security and H-1B visas in isolation; Blumenthal is aiming for broader legislation that deals comprehensively with immigration policies.

"There is a real moment of opportunity for comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "The reason why I became part of this bipartisan group is that I want to be part of the negotiations that lead to a stronger bill."

l.howard@theday.com

Twitter@KingstonLeeHow

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