Business & Economy

Labor Department officials say they will pursue guest worker fraud

FILE PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks to workers at the headquarters of tool manufacturer Snap-On on in Kenosha, Wisconsin on April 18, 2017, when Trump signed his
FILE PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks to workers at the headquarters of tool manufacturer Snap-On on in Kenosha, Wisconsin on April 18, 2017, when Trump signed his "Buy American, Hire American" executive order.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Federal officials plan a crackdown on what they say are abuses of the guest worker visa programs that have been heavily used by the U.S. technology industry to bring in high-skilled foreign workers.

The announcement by the Department of Labor on Tuesday came nearly two months after President Trump signed his "Buy American, Hire American" executive order with the goal of protecting U.S. employees.

Labor officials said in a statement they would direct the department's Wage and Hour Division to "use all its tools in conducting civil investigations to enforce labor protections provided by the visa programs," among other actions.

A department officials told reporters during a press call that they are training staff to look for criminal fraud and work on ways to detect abuses "more fulsomely." They plan to work more closely with federal labor inspectors.

In Southern California, there have been alleged abuses with worker visa programs in two high-profile cases.

In 2015, ousted IT employees at the Southern California Edison Co. in Rosemead complained they had been unfairly replaced by foreign workers, leading to a federal labor department investigation.

Officials investigated two outsourcing companies used by Edison, Infosys and TCS or Tata Consultancy Services. The investigation concluded there was no wrongdoing on the part of Infosys; a labor department spokesman did not respond to a query about the other company.

A spokeswoman from Edison said in an email to KPCC that "Southern California Edison abides by the law and believes it is fully compliant with applicable immigration and work authorization laws, including H-1B visa requirements."

Critics of foreign worker programs welcomed the news of the federal crackdown on alleged fraud in the worker visas. Some immigration-restriction advocates have long criticized the H-1B visa program, which draws a large number of high-skilled workers from India and elsewhere in Asia. 

"The basic problem is that these workers are paid less than American workers for the same work, and therefore they are favored by the employers, and this is what I worry about," said David North with the Center for Immigration Studies. The Washington, D.C., think tank supports reduced immigration. 

Asian community advocates see the announcement as more of an effort against immigration than a worker protection plan. Workers from India comprise the majority of H-1B holders admitted to the U.S.

"It looks like an extension of the Trump administration's xenophobic policies," said Shikha Bhatnagar, executive director of the South Asian Network in Artesia. "We hope that the government recognizes the contributions those immigrants make to our country and the economy."

Laboni Hoq, litigation director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, said the announcement was short on details, but that it echoes similar messages from the Trump administration.

"They are trying to pit U.S. workers against foreign workers," Hoq said. "They are trying to apply this false idea that the real struggles that U.S. workers face are somehow caused by foreign workers, or these foreign worker programs. We don't think that is the case at all."

Proponents of H-1B have argued that U.S. schools do not turn out enough qualified native applicants to fill tech industry positions.