The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing this week entitled “Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers.” Most of the hearing’s witnesses focused on criticisms of high-skilled, foreign-born workers admitted through the H-1B visa program. But there are pro-immigration reforms that would protect both immigrants and American workers.

H-1Bs are important contributors to America’s success. Studies have shown that H-1B restrictions cost the country billions of dollars each year in lost productivity, and they are mainly used by companies to expand, not downsize. A 2009 National Foundation for American Policy study found that firms use H-1B as they ramp up employment. “Each H-1B request in labor condition applications was associated with an increase of employment of 5 workers,” it found.

There are, however, occasional problems with the H-1B visa system that need to be addressed: some high-skilled immigrant workers are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, and, occasionally, American workers are replaced by H-1B visa holders. Congress can take four actions that would protect foreign-born workers from abusive employers and enable American workers to compete on equal footing, while meeting the labor needs of America’s economy:

  1. Allow H-1Bs to easily leave bad employers. H-1Bs’ legal employment status is dependent on the employer who petitioned for them. Employers can pay H-1Bs less than Americans only because Americans can walk away from the negotiation, but H-1Bs cannot without losing their status. This is unfair to both Americans and immigrants. H-1Bs should be given at least a 60-day grace period to find a new employer if they leave their original employer.
  2. Let H-1Bs stay in the green card line if they change employers. If an employer applies for a green card for the worker, an H-1B cannot leave the employer without giving up their spot in the green card line. This provides a huge incentive for them to keep a lousy job even if a different employer would pay them more or treat them better. H-1Bs should be able to keep their place in the green card line even if they change jobs.
  3. Abolish the H-1B cap. A counterintuitive way to combat H-1B abuses is to end the low H-1B limit. Due to the low cap, a lottery is used to decide which companies can hire an H-1B. Like a raffle, the winners are the employers who submit the most applications, not necessarily the employers who have the greatest need (as measured in pay). This means that workers are driven toward a random assortment of employers, not the ones that they would, in a free market, choose.
  4. Raise the green card limits. Green cards allow successful H-1Bs to transition away from temporary status to permanent residency. Americans compete with green card recipients on truly equal footing. Legal permanent residents can walk away from a negotiation, join a union, and work for any employer that they prefer. Just as important, they can create a business of their own, which immigrants do at extremely high rates.

Any immigration reform that seeks to protect high-skilled workers—both Americans and immigrants—should expand their rights, unleashing their creative energies to once again make America the land of the free and the home of the innovative.