As Silicon Valley pushes to expand the number of temporary immigrants working in the U.S., a prominent Senate critic of the H-1B visa program cited The Center for Investigative Reporting’s findings showing widespread abuse of foreign tech workers.

CIR “described how employers exploit foreign workers, withhold wages, and force them into contracts that make them reluctant to ever speak up,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who headed up a hearing this week about abuses in the country’s work visa programs.

On April 1, the U.S. will accept applications for 65,000 temporary work visas under the H-1B program. A tech industry-backed bill pushed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would increase the number to 195,000.

Because of extensions and exemptions allowed under that and related work visa programs, an estimated 840,000 people from around the world work in the United States on temporary visas, which are largely intended to help companies seek uniquely talented employees for specific jobs.

This week, Grassley heard from witnesses who said employers use U.S. work visa programs as a source of cheap foreign labor.

He cited a 2008 fraud assessment showing a 20 percent violation rate.

Among the violations:

  • Foreign workers not paid as promised.
  • Work sites with no employees to be found.
  • Employers listing bogus jobs on visa petitions: A “business analyst” actually ended up working in a laundromat.

CIR found that abuse of foreign workers goes beyond lower pay, especially in the technology sector.

A series of CIR print, broadcast and graphic novel reports published in October showed how labor brokers exploit the program to create what workers characterized as indentured servitude. Tech engineers are afraid to speak up – even when they aren’t paid for their work – because they’re forced to sign restrictive contracts exacting steep penalties for walking off the job.

CIR’s investigation concluded that brokers providing Indian high-tech workers had hijacked the program, creating an underground system of financial bondage by stealing wages and benefits, even suing workers who quit.

CIR found that even those who are caught committing the worst abuses survive and thrive, often with taxpayers’ help. The federal government has awarded contracts and other benefits worth nearly half a billion dollars to firms cited for violating laws protecting temporary immigrant workers.

Matt Smith is a reporter for Reveal, covering religion. Smith's two-decade career in journalism began at The Sacramento Union in California. He went on to positions at newspapers in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Twin Falls, Idaho; Fairfield, California; and Newport News, Virginia. Between 1994 and 1997, Smith covered Latin America as a reporter in Dow Jones & Co.'s Mexico City bureau. For 14 years, he was a lead columnist at Village Voice Media in San Francisco. He came to Reveal from The Bay Citizen. Smith holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Before his career in journalism, Smith was a professional bicycle racer. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.