Bank of America cancels visa holders job offers

March 12, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader
A hiring bind for non-U.S. citizens and bank of america

The two senators who co-sponsored the Employ American Workers Act rode that sentiment last month, when they inserted the law into the stimulus bill.

Bank of America Corp. has been forced to withdraw job offers to a small number of foreign-born business students, the latest sign of the government's tightening hold on the banking industry.

A provision of last month's massive stimulus bill, the Employ American Workers Act, essentially forbids banks that receive government money from hiring workers with H-1B visas for two years. Those visas allow companies to temporarily hire educated foreign workers for specialized occupations, and are often used in fields like technology and medicine when companies can't find American workers to fill the jobs.

The H-1B visas aren't normally such a point of contention for banks; even the largest users of the program, such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., apply for only a few hundred visas each year. But banks are under increasing scrutiny from legislators who loaned them billions in taxpayer dollars, and the industry's thousands of newly laid-off workers aren't all feeling kindly toward their foreign colleagues.

The two senators who co-sponsored the Employ American Workers Act rode that sentiment last month, when they inserted the law into the stimulus bill.

A hiring bind for non-U.S. citizens and banks

"While we are suffering through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the very least we can do is to make sure that banks receiving a taxpayer bailout are not allowed to import cheaper labor from overseas while they are throwing American workers out on the street," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said at the time.

Chuck Grassley H-1B

"There is no need for companies to hire foreign guest workers when there are plenty of qualified Americans looking for jobs," added Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Immigration advocates offer a scathing assessment of the new law, calling it jingoist and divisive. They also say it's counterproductive, because it prevents banks from hiring the best workers which they'll need if they're going to escape the global financial crisis.

"If Bank of America found this one guy in England who they thought would be the guy who could solve this crisis, they couldn't hire him," said Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA. "These are MBA grads, they're the best of the best, they're creating value for their company."

When the law was introduced, the AILA said in a statement that "our nation's capacity to funnel the world's diverse talent pool into a highly productive economic engine is a central reason that we are the wealthiest nation in history."

Though Employ American Workers is meant to save American jobs, Kuck said he expects it will have the unintended consequence of encouraging banks to move more of their skilled operations outside the U.S. For example, Microsoft Corp. has been expanding operations in Canada so that it doesn't have to abide by visa caps in the U.S.

65,000 H-1B visas per year

The government can issue up to 65,000 H-1B visas per year, though some businesses have been pushing Congress to raise that cap. The visas are good for six years.

Charlotte-based Bank of America declined to say how many job offers it had to withdraw, a move first reported by the Financial Times. Bank spokeswoman Sara Bloomquist said that Bank of America "had very much looked forward to these individuals joining the company."

She said the visa holders are significantly less than 1 percent of the bank's 300,000-employee base.

According to data from the Department of Labor, Bank of America submitted less than 100 applications for H-1B visas in 2008 in its home state, looking for workers to fill jobs such as "consultant applications programmer" or "risk control lead engineer." It's been speculated that the bank had to withdraw about 50 job offers.

Kuck said he expects to hear similar stories of rescinded job offers at the nation's other big banks. The students who were going to work at Bank of America will be able to stay in the U.S. for a year, if they can find jobs, under a "practical training" government provision, he said.

The Employ American Workers Act is not an outright ban on hiring those workers; rather, it says that banks cannot hire a visa holder unless they can prove that they're not replacing a laid-off American worker. Because Bank of America, like many of its peers, is cutting thousands of jobs, the law effectively freezes its hiring of visa holders.

It's another sign of the government's ever-expanding power over Bank of America and other banks that have received bailout loans.

The government, which has lent $45 billion to Bank of America, has already forced the bank to slash its dividend payout to shareholders, restrict its share repurchases, disclose its executive compensation plan for government approval, and other measures.

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