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Keep bringing in tech workers from India, Senator Tillis urges

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis speaks at a 2015 event. Last week he told Indian-Americans in Washington that the U.S. needs to keep bringing in workers from India to fill high-tech jobs.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis speaks at a 2015 event. Last week he told Indian-Americans in Washington that the U.S. needs to keep bringing in workers from India to fill high-tech jobs. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

For the U.S. to be a leader in innovation, the country needs to keep bringing in workers from India to fill high-tech jobs, Sen. Thom Tillis says.

The Huntersville Republican made the remarks last week to Indian-Americans attending a Washington event organized by the US-India Friendship Council and US-India Business Council, according to reports by Indian news outlets that were confirmed by Tillis’ office. Tillis said he wanted Americans to have the first opportunity to get high-skilled jobs but that there aren’t enough to meet demand.

Tillis’ comments come as visas known as H-1Bs remain a potent political topic, with lawmakers calling on the White House to rein in abuse of the program by some companies. President Donald Trump, on the campaign trail last year, decried the visas as “very, very bad,” arguing they took jobs from American workers.

Tillis has argued in Congress before about the importance of such labor for U.S. companies.

“We need that talent to come in and fill these jobs if we want to continue to be the leader in innovation and in research,” Tillis told the Indian-American audience last week, according to the reports. “These are very, very important jobs for the U.S. to continue to maintain its competitive advantage as the greatest innovative nation that has ever existed.”

Tillis also said foreign students who obtain advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the U.S. should be given permanent residency here.

“We should have a policy that basically staples a green card on the back of their diploma, with the agreement that they will work and contribute to the American economy, because it creates American jobs when we do that right,” Tillis said.

We need that talent to come in and fill these jobs if we want to continue to be the leader in innovation and in research.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, on bringing in foreign workers to help fill high-tech jobs

Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said Tillis was not available for comment, citing the senator’s attendance at confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

In a statement, Keylin said there is “unanimous agreement” that companies across the U.S. are facing a shortage of qualified and high-skilled tech workers – “which are in high demand.”

“If we fail to fill those positions, North Carolina businesses and American workers will suffer as a result, which is why Sen. Tillis has been a supporter of the H-1B visa program,” Keylin said.

North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Richard Burr, was also at last week’s event, according to reports. The reports did not say whether the Republican from Winston-Salem made any remarks. Burr could not be reached for comment.

Democrats and Republicans have complained some companies exploit H-1B visas to fill tech jobs with foreigners willing to work for less money.

Critics of the program are holding out hope Trump will crack down on H-1B abuses. But it’s not clear if or when Trump will move on changes to the visas, which are mentioned in a draft of an executive order. The order does not lay out specifics, saying only that such programs must prioritize the protection of American workers, “our forgotten working people.”

This week, Sen. Dick Durbin, a high-ranking Democrat from Illinois, criticized Trump in a tweet for not moving faster.

“Pres Trump promised to protect American workers by cracking down on H-1B visa abuse. Instead he’s pursued cruel, un-American immig policies,” wrote Durbin, who has repeatedly introduced legislation to revamp the H-1B program.

Created in 1990, H-1B visas allow companies to temporarily hire workers from India and elsewhere for high-skilled American jobs.

In recent years, the program has come under fire over reports that companies, including Disney and Toys “R” Us, have laid off Americans who first had to train their foreign replacements. Underscoring the growing public focus on the visas, “60 Minutes” on Sunday ran a segment featuring Americans who described being displaced by H-1B workers. Such training and layoffs have also taken place in Charlotte.

Tillis, who has worked for IBM and accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, companies that have applied for H-1Bs, has cited his own experience in defending firms’ use of the visas.

During a 2016 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on H-1Bs, Tillis said that “just because this (American) person says they’re an IT person, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are qualified for the IT job, particularly with the highly specialized nature of the industry today.”

He also noted during the hearing that “there are very clearly some bad practices out in the industry.”

Allegations of H-1B abuse have largely been levied against global technology outsourcing firms, which are accused of flooding the program with applications each year, squeezing out smaller companies.

Thousands of workers on H-1B and similar visas are all over Charlotte, many from India. Some of the biggest users of the visas locally include outsourcing companies such as Cognizant Technology Solutions and consulting firms like Deloitte, but also familiar names like Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Soaring demand for H-1Bs has forced the federal government to hold an annual lottery to award the visas, which are capped each year at 85,000 by Congress. Last year, more than 236,000 applications for H-1Bs were filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This year, the agency will start accepting applications April 3.

At last year’s Senate hearing, Tillis said that two years ago the Charlotte area had a 1,000 unfilled IT positions because of a shortage of applicants with required skills. The city ranked 14th nationwide in 2015 for number of H-1B visa jobs given federal certification. Rising demand for visa workers have put American workers in Charlotte on edge about potentially losing their job to a foreigner.

“I can tell you in my 10 years in dealing with this issue on the other side, I never saw an issue or ever heard a discussion that said, ‘Go hire a visa worker, because we can pay them less,’” Tillis said at last year’s Senate hearing. “In fact, in many instances we paid them more, because they happened to have a hot skill.”

During the hearing, Tillis also called for reforms that would enhance transparency into instances where companies are paying workers “less than they should.”

Tillis has been a strong supporter of other visa programs, such as H-2B, which allows employers to bring foreigners to the U.S. to fill temporary non-agricultural jobs. He has said many North Carolina’s employers in the seafood, tourism and other industries would have to “shut their doors” without access to H-2B labor.

His remarks last week came after U.S. immigration service earlier this month announced a suspension of expedited processing of H-1B visas starting April 3 for as long as six months.

At last week’s gathering, Tillis said it’s “a myth that Indian workers are paid less.”

“Till such time that the U.S. produces a continuous supply of home-grown talent, I want U.S. visa programs that support people from abroad come into the country,” Tillis said.

Deon Roberts: 704-358-5248, @DeonERoberts

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