AP Investigation: Banks Sought Foreign Workers

Frank Bass and Rita Beamish, AP, February 1, 2009

Major U.S. banks sought government permission to bring thousands of foreign workers into the country for high-paying jobs even as the system was melting down last year and Americans were getting laid off, according to an Associated Press review of visa applications.

The dozen banks now receiving the biggest rescue packages, totaling more than $150 billion, requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers over the past six years for positions that included senior vice presidents, corporate lawyers, junior investment analysts and human resources specialists. The average annual salary for those jobs was $90,721, nearly twice the median income for all American households.

As the economic collapse worsened last year–with huge numbers of bank employees laid off–the numbers of visas sought by the dozen banks in AP’s analysis increased by nearly one-third, from 3,258 in the 2007 budget year to 4,163 in fiscal 2008.

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It is unclear how many foreign workers the banks actually hired; the government does not release those details. The actual number is likely a fraction of the 21,800 foreign workers the banks sought to hire because the government only grants 85,000 such visas each year among all U.S. employers.

During the last three months of 2008, the largest banks that received taxpayer loans announced more than 100,000 layoffs. The number of foreign workers included among those laid off is unknown.

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Companies are required to pay foreign workers a prevailing wage based on the job’s description. But they can use the lower end of government wage scales even for highly skilled workers; hire younger foreigners with lower salary demands; and hire foreigners with higher levels of education or advanced degrees for jobs for which similarly educated American workers would be considered overqualified.

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Beyond seeking approval for visas from the government, banks that accepted federal bailout money also enlisted uncounted foreign workers, often in technology jobs, through intermediary companies known as “body shops.” Such businesses are the top recipients of the H-1B visas.

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Banks turned to foreign workers before the current economic crisis, said Diane Casey-Landry, chief operating officer for the American Bankers Association. The group said a year ago that demand exceeded the pool of qualified workers in areas like sales, lending and bank administration. Now with massive layoffs, the situation is different, Casey-Landry said.

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“You’re using taxpayer dollars and there’s an expectation that there are benefits to the U.S.,” said Ron Hira, a national expert on foreign employment and assistant public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “What you’re really doing is leaking away those jobs and benefits that should accrue to the taxpayers.”

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