Are Foreign Workers a Drain on the U.S. Economy?

By Senator Bernie Sanders, Vermont - (I)

With the staggering number of jobs that have been lost in this country, including at least 100,000 at the largest banks, our top priority should be putting Americans back to work at decent-paying jobs. Instead, critics have lined up against the modest provision which I wrote with my Republican colleague, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. This amendment, included in the economic stimulus package, reasonably reforms the H-1B visa program at banks that have taken billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts.

Our provision would simply prohibit banks that take taxpayer bailout funds from replacing laid-off workers with foreign guest workers when qualified American workers are available.

Guest worker programs were designed to allow foreign workers into the United States only when qualified, willing and able American workers cannot be found.

Contrary to critics’ contentions that foreign workers will be “shut out” by our provision, nothing in the amendment prevents banks from hiring guest workers. We simply ask firms taking American taxpayer funds not to replace recently laid-off Americans with foreign guest workers. For example, if an attorney at a bailed-out firm were laid off, this provision prohibits the company from hiring a foreign attorney to replace the laid-off American. It does not prohibit the firm from hiring a new IT professional from abroad to fill a new post in that office.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, over the last two years, the major financial institutions which have received the largest bailout in American history hired more than 4,300 H-1B workers. A recent investigation by The Associated Press found that a dozen banks now receiving more than $150 billion in bailouts requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers over the past six years to replace laid-off American employees.

And who are the “best and the brightest” employees that critics seem so concerned about? Many of them reportedly are human resources specialists, junior investment analysts, lawyers, and vice presidents. Do you really think there aren’t enough lawyers, accountants and business executives in America to fill these jobs? With 100,000 workers laid off recently from the largest banks, is it unreasonable to ask firms receiving taxpayer assistance to look first to American workers to fill positions vacated because of layoffs?

It‘s absurd to claim that banks can't find top-notch American workers to perform these jobs when they have laid off so many American workers.

I utterly reject implications that American workers are not as good, or smart, or capable as foreign workers, and that is why hiring guest workers is necessary. In the past decade, millions of American jobs have been shipped overseas – not because Americans cannot do them, but because wages are cheaper in developing nations.

If American workers were lazy – and they are not – or unwilling to work long hours – and they work the longest hours in the industrialized world – employers would have a right to look elsewhere. If American workers were untrained for a particular profession, and trained workers from abroad were available, I would not object to granting visas to those foreign workers. But the idea that we can have massive layoffs here as a result of the financial problems in banks and financial institutions, and address those problems by giving or lending those banks huge sums of taxpayer money, only to see those taxpayer dollars used to replace American workers with foreign workers: that idea does not make sense.

This is not protectionism. It is recognition of the skill and capacity of American workers. When they lose their jobs, they should not be cast aside because lower-cost foreign workers are available. We should, and must, help them do the productive work they have been accustomed to doing. Anything less would be a slap in the face to those millions of Americans who have done their jobs well, and who have been the bedrock on which the American economy has been built.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, independent from Vermont, is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees. He is the longest serving independent in congressional history.

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