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The controversy over the H-1B visa program for highly skilled workers is heating up once again. Federal agents detained 11 people in six states as part of a wide investigation into suspected visa fraud, the U.S. Attorney's office in Iowa announced on Feb. 12, a day after the arrests. Those arrested are accused of fraudulently representing themselves or other workers in immigration documents.
Besides the arrests, Vision Systems Group, an IT services firm based in South Plainfield, N.J., with a branch office in Coon Rapids, Iowa, was indicted on 10 federal counts, including conspiracy and mail fraud charges. The firm allegedly used fraudulent documents to bring H-1B visa workers into the U.S. The government is seeking the forfeiture of $7.4 million from Vision Systems that was gained through the alleged offenses. Five other technology companies, including Worldwide Software Services and Sana Systems in Clinton, Iowa, remain under investigation for document fraud, prosecutors said. "We are only at the tip of iceberg as to where this [investigation] leads," said Matthew G. Whitaker, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. "We have a ways to go and more [fraud] to uncover."
Representatives of Vision Systems, Worldwide Software, and Sana Systems could not be reached for comment after business hours on Feb. 12. Whitaker declined to identify the other three companies being investigated.
The coordinated, nationwide enforcement effort began 18 months ago and continues, officials said. It is the first to specifically address fraud in the H-1B visa system, which critics say brings lower-cost tech workers into the U.S., displacing American workers.
As unemployment rises in the U.S., the H-1B program is drawing scrutiny for its potential effects on U.S. jobs. In October the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service (USCIS) released a report showing rampant fraud in the H-1B visa program. At the same time, critics say that outsourcing firms, including Infosys Technologies (INFY) and Wipro (WIT), use H-1B visas to replace U.S. employees with cheaper workers from abroad, often cycling overseas staff through U.S. training programs before sending them back home to perform such jobs.
Large U.S. tech companies such as Oracle (ORCL) and Microsoft (MSFT), which want to raise the annual limits on H-1B visas, are seeking to differentiate themselves from firms that commit fraud. Bill Kamela, director of policy counsel for Microsoft, told BusinessWeek in January that the company has been working with USCIS to ensure the program is free of fraud and abuse.
The fraud identified in the Feb. 12 announcement echoes patterns outlined in the October USCIS report. Specifically, Vision Systems Group is accused of filing petition requests with the government showing the H-1B visa workers would be employed in Iowa to take advantage of lower requirements for wage rates. But the workers were allegedly placed in locations on the East and West coasts. Whitaker says that by doing so, the company "dislocated and displaced United States workers that could have done those jobs."
In other cases uncovered in the investigation, foreign workers have allegedly been placed in jobs and locations not previously certified by the Labor Dept., displacing qualified American workers and violating prevailing wage laws. The companies and foreign workers allegedly submitted false statements and documents to state and federal agencies supporting their visa petitions.
The operation was conducted by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in Iowa, California, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and New Jersey.
Herbst is a reporter for BusinessWeek in New York.