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Reprinted with permission from Creators.

Let’s describe the problem with an example. A few years ago, Southern California Edison employed 300 foreign tech workers through the H-1B visa program. They took the jobs of American IT specialists who suffered the added indignity of having to train their replacements.

The foreign workers were paid at least $40,000 a year less than the laid-off Americans. The Americans couldn’t complain publicly to Congress because the company had them under a gag order.

All this was perfectly legal.

Up to 85,000 skilled foreigners, mostly from India and China, come to this country a year under the H-1B program. It has drawn bipartisan concern.

President Trump just issued an executive order directing federal agencies to suggest changes in the visa rules. What to make of it is hard to say.

“It’s weaker than it could have been,” Ron Hira, a political scientist at Howard University and longtime H-1B critic, told me. “Some things can be done through policy guidance, policy memos and regulation writing.”

On the other hand, Hira was pleased that Trump at least acknowledged the problem, something his predecessors had not done.

Disney, Citibank and Hertz are among the heavy users of H-1B visas. Goldman Sachs does it in a shadowy way, hiring IBM to provide the H-1B labor.

Hira, a son of immigrants from India, has described the abuses in testimony before the U.S. Senate:

Nearly 4 in 5 of these visas go to workers with low-level skills and, therefore, low-level pay. Many are “low-level” only because employers can, in Hira’s words, “define the position at whatever level they want.”

Employers must pay what’s being called a “prevailing” wage for the area. But in the world of H-1B visas, that’s not the same thing as the median wage. It’s a wage significantly lower, often 40 percent, than the median wage.

As a result, IT outsourcers enjoy net profit margins as high as 25 percent. Using American workers would cut their profit margins to 8 percent at most.

The foreigners are sometimes mistreated, as well. The employer holds the visa, so complainers can be summarily dismissed and subject to deportation. India-based Tata, a top recipient of H-1B visas, tried to collect fees from workers who had quit.

Such controversies are not unique to the United States. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has demanded an overhaul of a similar program. Canada got to the heart of its dilemma by raising wage levels for foreign workers.

Which the U.S. could do. But Trump did not go there in his vague executive order. He merely asked for studies.

Suspicions run high that establishment types in the White House are not keen to deny corporate America access to cheap labor. The financial industry, in particular, is a major consumer of IT services.

One way to appear to be fixing a problem while ensuring it will not be fixed is through legislative deceit. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa recently pushed a trick bill that would have done little other than take the issue off the table.

Not that Trump would ever mislead the public … but let the record show that his companies have tried to import at least 1,000 temporary foreign workers. Shalabh Kumar, a major Trump donor and native of India, recently announced that Trump would, if anything, expand the H-1B program. And Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said that reforming it was not a top priority.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley says he’s “grateful” for the executive order. Less enthusiastically, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin calls it “a guarded and timid approach.” It may be no approach at all, but perhaps Trump will astonish us — in a good way.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

 

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

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