Correction to This Article
This editorial incorrectly stated that foreign workers must have "unique skills" to be hired under the H-1B visa program; the law requires in most instances only that they hold job-appropriate college degrees. The editorial also erred in reporting that firms that accept federal bailout funds may not hire foreign workers within 90 days of a layoff. In fact, they may not displace a U.S. worker within 90 days of an H-1B filing on behalf of a foreign worker tapped for an equivalent position.

A Wall Built With Visas

Monday, March 2, 2009

THE ECONOMIC stimulus package signed into law last week by President Obama contains a provision antithetical to innovation and domestic prosperity. That provision makes it even harder -- some say impossible -- for companies that receive government bailout money to hire foreign employees for specialized work.

The chief sponsors of the initiative, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), say that they are concerned about the plight of laid-off Americans. And they are rightly critical of companies that abuse the H1-B visa -- meant for highly skilled foreign workers in specialized fields -- to hire low-skilled workers who accept a fraction of the pay commanded by Americans. Those employers should be and are being held legally accountable; last month, executives of a company in Mr. Grassley's home state were indicted in connection with fraudulent H1-B applications.

But erecting even more hurdles to the already rigorous H1-B hiring process could backfire in more ways than one. Even before the Grassley-Sanders proposal, companies had to make a case that a would-be foreign hire had unique skills or expertise that made him the best candidate for the job. The stimulus provision would add to the hoops companies have to jump through. For example, a company that accepted bailout dollars would be prohibited from hiring a foreign worker within 90 days of a layoff -- even if the foreign worker is not a candidate for a vacancy created by that layoff. The company would have to certify that it made a "good faith" effort to hire an American for the position and that it considered training a U.S. worker to fill the spot. The new requirements would expire in two years.

Shutting out top talent from overseas will do nothing to help the U.S. economy or American workers. Making it harder for U.S. companies to hire the best and brightest when they are most in need of cutting-edge technology and true innovation is nonsensical. Such a move would discourage bright foreign students from elite universities from even seeking jobs here; that is a loss to the students, their prospective employers and to the country. Companies who see their opportunities to hire such students evaporate may outsource even more jobs, especially those that can be done on a virtual or consulting basis.

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