The Takeaway: Obama's trade win could affect H-1B reform efforts

Visa reformers are worried any H-1B deal could prevent them from re-shaping the controversial program.


President Obama answers a reporter's question during a Nov. 8 press conference.

Credit: Yuri Gripas/Reuters
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Senate passage on Wednesday of fast-track trade authority for President Obama has H-1B visa reformers worried. They fear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) his administration is pushing could make it harder for them to make what they see as needed changes to the visa program.

The 60-38 vote will allow the president to present trade agreements to Congress for either approval or rejection without change. That gives the administration more leverage in reaching a deal with other nations, but leaves open the question of whether a future trade pact could undermine reform efforts before they even gain traction.

H-1B visa opponents say the program is all too often used by companies to outsource IT jobs, and charge that has been leveled in recent months against a California utility and Disney.Elsewhere in the world, the H-1B visa program is seen as a part of free trade and calls to restrict its use protectionist.

Both sides of the H-1B debate weighed in on the effects of yesterday's vote:

  • The top U.S. trade negotiator says there's nothing in the TPP to stop Congress from making changes to the H-1B program. Specifically, there are no provisions in it that "will require changes to U.S. immigration law, regulations, policy or practices," U.S. trade representative Michael Froman told Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a recent letter.
  • Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), said that while the TPP might not affect current law, it could still have a chilling effect on changes down the road. He argued that the pact's Investor-State Dispute Mechanism could be used by other countries to fight "visa processing times, fees, or rules [that] are too onerous and cut into profits."
  • Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University, and Costa argued in an analysis for the EPI that TPP will, in fact, undermine U.S. immigration authority.
  • William Stock, an immigration attorney who is the president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, agreed with Froman. "There would be no basis for another state party to the agreement to complain about a change in [U.S.] visa policy." At worst, he said, "it would just be possible for other states to complain to the World Trade Organization if we did, and possibly get agreement to impose reciprocal restrictions on U.S. service providers in their country."

With reports by Patrick Thibodeau at Computerworld.

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