Homeland Security Dept. Cannot ‘Precisely’ Track the Number of Foreigners Working in U.S. on H-1B Visas

By Susan Jones | January 19, 2011 | 12:01pm EST

(CNSNews.com) - No one knows how many foreign workers with H-1B visas are in the United States at any given time because of “limitations in agency data,” a new report says.

Congress created the H-1B visa program in 1990 so U.S. employers could hire temporary, skilled foreign workers to give their companies a competitive edge. Many H-1B workers come here to work in high-tech fields.

By law, the number of foreign workers holding H-1B visas is capped, currently at 65,000.

But according to the Government Accountability Office, “The total number of H-1B workers in the U.S. at any one time -- and information about the length of their stay -- is unknown, because (1) data systems among the various agencies that process such individuals are not linked so individuals cannot be readily tracked, and (2) H-1B workers are not assigned a unique identifier that would allow for tracking them over time--particularly if and when their visa status changes.”

The report says the Homeland Security Department is responsible for tracking the number of H-1B petitions and the number of H-1B visas issued, but “it cannot precisely do so.”

GAO explained that H-1B petition approvals are captured in Homeland Security’s CLAIMS 3 data system. But visas for H-1B workers living abroad at the time of approval are captured by a State Department data system that is not linked to CLAIMS 3. Further, information on visa holders who actually enter or exit the United States is tracked by Homeland Security’s US-VISIT program, which is not linked to CLAIMS 3, either.

Moreover, “Because these data systems do not use a unique, person-centric identifier for H-1B workers, Homeland Security cannot determine, for example, how many approved H-1B workers living abroad actually received an H-1B visa and/or ultimately entered the country,” the GAO report says.

“Similarly, Homeland Security does not track H-1B workers after their visas expire, and cannot readily determine if and when H-1B workers apply for, or are granted, legal permanent residency, leave the country, or remain in the country on an expired visa.”

While the H-1B is not considered a permanent visa, H-1B workers can apply for extensions and pursue permanent residence in the United States.

Congress, in creating the H-1B visa program, set a statutory cap of 65,000 on the number of foreigners who could get such visas. (Universities and research institutions are not subject to the cap.) To comply with the law, GAO said Homeland Security “must take the necessary steps to maintain an accurate count” of foreign workers who are issued visas.

The GAO found that between fiscal year 2000 and fiscal year 2009, the majority of approved H-1B workers were born in Asia. Over the last decade, the top four countries of birth for approved H-1B workers were India, China, Canada, and the Philippines. Across all 10 years, about 64 percent of approved H-1B workers were born in these four countries, with the largest group from India, the report said.

The GAO said Homeland Security Department is working to modernize its information systems, which may allow it to better track the cumulative H-1B workforce. The department also plans to implement an electronic I-129 petition, with a unique identifier for each H-1B worker.

The H-1B program does not require employers to provide evidence that they have first tried to hire a U.S. worker, and some in Congress object to immigrants displacing U.S. workers, especially at a time of high U.S. unemployment.

The GAO report considered whether the program, as currently structured, creates disadvantages for American workers and concluded that it probably does.

Among other things, the GAO said oversight of the program is “fragmented and restricted”; and it said statutory changes made to the program have “increased the pool of H-1B workers beyond the cap and lowered the bar for eligibility.”

The GAO said the program probably isn’t being used to its full potential --- “and may be detrimental in some cases.” It recommended that Congress re-examine and reform key elements of the H-1B program.

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