Senators want probe into abuse of visa program

Senators want probe into abuse of visa program
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan group of 10 senators is pressing the Obama administration to investigate a California energy company over allegations it is abusing the nation's visa program for high-skilled workers. 

The senators expressed concern over reports that Southern California Edison replaced U.S. workers with visa holders through the H-1B program, which the technology industry champions.

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The company has been accused of cutting hundreds of information technology jobs in the United States and sending some overseas. Lawmakers have also accused the company of using the H-1B visa program to fill some of those jobs with foreign contract workers in the United States.  

"To add insult to injury, many of the replaced American employees report they have been forced to train the foreign workers who are taking their jobs," the lawmakers wrote in a letter Thursday.  

The group, led by Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE (R-Ala.) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGun proposal picks up GOP support Durbin: I had 'nothing to do' with Curbelo snub Republicans jockey for position on immigration MORE (Ill.), called on the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Labor to investigate. 

At the same time, some lawmakers are calling for legislation to increase the yearly cap on the program, a major legislative priority for many business leaders in the technology industry, who say abuse of the program is isolated. Even some senators supportive of increasing the cap signed onto the Thursday letter, including Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.). 

Some, like Sessions and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have called to curb abuse and said expanding the cap would only make things worse. 

Other lawmakers signing the letter include Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.). 

The allegations against the energy company have been in the news for months and were aired during a Judiciary panel hearing in March. But abuse of the high-skilled visa program, and possibly others, is not unique to the California company, the lawmakers wrote. 

The senators noted that the abuse appeared to be concentrated in the information technology sector. A majority of the 65,000 new visas handed out each year goes to the computer industry. 

In a statement, Southern California Edison noted it is cutting the number of workers in its IT department from 1,400 to 860 this year due to "strategic changes." It said most of its IT staffers and contract employees are permanent residents. It added that the two contractors it works with, Infosys and TCS, are required to comply with all laws. 

"SCE will cooperate with any investigation that concerns the issues mentioned in the senators’ letter," the company said in a statement. 

The H-1B visa program requires visa holders to be paid wages and benefits comparable to what U.S. workers earn, a provision meant to remove the economic incentive to hire cheaper foreign workers. But critics argue companies are able to skirt the requirement in practice.