U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a congressional committee that ensuring American workers have jobs is a "top obligation," and that her agency was stepping up its enforcement of the H-1B program.
Napolitano said that over the last month the department has added fraud prevention tactics that weren't being used previously in the H-1B program, such as visits to work sites. "We're going to keep at this to make sure that the intent of that program is fulfilled," she said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
Napolitano was responding to a question from U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who has introduced legislation, along with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), called the H-1B Visa Fraud and Abuse Protections Act (S.887). The 37-page reform bill includes a number of restrictions and enforcement provisions, including audits of employers.
Durbin talked about abuses in the H-1B program but also cited "a very serious concern" that "many of these H-1B holders are going to displace American workers or be placed in positions where unemployed American workers might otherwise have an opportunity."
In response, Napolitano said that "our top obligations are to American workers, making sure American workers have jobs."
The brief exchange didn't go into Napolitano's view on the use of the visa. In court papers filed by the DHS in response to the Programmers Guild lawsuit over the Bush administration's extension of student visas for work from one year to 29 months, the DHS argued that H-1B workers are needed to avoid a "competitive disadvantage."
A study done last year by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service found as many as one-in-five H-1B applications were affected by either fraud or "technical violations," of the program. The immigration service is part of the DHS.
Napolitano was one of 12 governors to sign a letter to Congress in 2007 calling for increases in H-1B visas, citing "a critical shortage of highly skilled professionals in math and science to fill current needs."
Ron Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Outsourcing America, said the "U.S. cannot reach her stated goal simply by increasing enforcement in the H-1B program. As has been detailed in numerous government reports, there are enormous loopholes in the H-1B program that allow employers to legally replace American workers with H-1B workers."
Hira said Napolitano's comment doesn't represent a change in policy from the letter she sent as governor to Congress.