AP Article on H-1B Visa Good, But Misses the Boat

As I mentioned in my opening post in this blog, I’ve done quite a bit of research and writing on abuse of the H-1B work visa, which is typically used by the tech industry for the hiring of foreign engineers and programmers.  I had been planning to post something on H-1B in a week or so, with another topic in between, but I’ve been inundated today with messages from readers on this Associated Press article.  Indeed, I learned later that the Yahoo! version of the article, linked to here, has over 5,000 reader comments!  So, the current post will discuss that article, which I find to be largely correct but also significantly flawed.

Before I discuss the AP article, since most readers are not aware of my writings on H-1B I must make one thing clear from the outset:  I am NOT in favor of doing away with the H-1B visa.  I strongly support facilitating the hiring of “the best and the brightest” from around the world, and have personally acted on that conviction.  I’ve vigorously supported my department’s filling faculty positions with foreign applicants whom I considered brilliant, and have pushed Silicon Valley employers to hire my outstanding foreign students.  I thus support the old H-1 visa, whose formal title was Aliens of Distinguished Merit and Ability, and support adapting H-!B in this direction.

However, the vast majority of H-1Bs are not in that “best and brightest” league.  On the contrary, my research has shown that in my field, computer science, the average quality of foreign students who work in the U.S. after obtaining their degrees is actually somewhat lower than that of comparable U.S. natives.

Instead, a number of studies, including my own — notably, one in 2003 in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, and one in 2013 in another academic journal, Migration Letters — have shown the following:

  • The visa is widely abused, throughout the industry, NOT mainly limited to the Indian IT staffing (outsourcing) firms such as Infosys.
  • Rather than being used for the purpose of remedying labor shortages, most employers use the visa to obtain cheap, immobile labor.  (For many employers, the immobility is even more important than price.)
  • Another major motivation for employers is that the H-1B visa serves as an enabler for the industry’s ageist practices — and keep in mind, “old” starts around age 35!  The vast majority of the H-1Bs are young.

Now, let me address the AP article.  At first glance, you might wonder, What’s not to like?  What objections do I have?  The thrust of the article seems consistent with my points above, right?  Well, no.

My primary objection is that the article conveys the message that the bulk of abuse of H-1B occurs with the Indian outsourcing firms, portraying, say, Infosys as a villain while claiming that Intel uses the visa responsibly.  This distinction is absolutely unwarranted — the visa is abused ACROSS THE board, BOTH in the Indian IT staffing firms AND in the mainstream U.S. firms.  The latter includes the household names, and includes the category that the industry lobbyists portray as the “good” H-1Bs, the international students hired from U.S. university campuses.  See my links above for the statistics and other details, which are important.  Note carefully that the data EXCLUDE the IT staffing firms; the analyses show that the mainstream firms are culpable too.

Note the key role of the industry lobbyists and their allies, such as the immigration lawyer groups, the political parties (who covet the industry’s lavish campaign donations), the ostensibly pro-engineer but industry-dominated IEEE-USA, and, yes, the universities, who want those foreign students to keep flocking to the campuses.  With the “Intel si!, Infosys no!” cry, the lobbyists can appear to be concerned about H-1B abuse while at the same time protecting their own interests.  Slick, huh?

All this matters.  It has resulted in legislation, such as the Senate immigration reform bill passed earlier this year (though now dead), that is punitive toward the Indian firms while actually sweetening the H-1B deal for the American firms.  And if the bill had been enacted, even the “punitive” parts would have been watered down in conference committee and in the implementing regulations.  Result:  H-1B would have an even harsher impact on U.S. citizen and permanent resident engineers and programmers than before.

Meanwhile, it’s mind-boggling to me that a bill that scapegoats a particular ethnicity, in this case Indian, could pass the U.S. Senate.  Mind you, the Indian firms aren’t angels, but my point is that neither are the mainstream companies.  See my Bloomberg op-ed on this.

To the reporters’ credit, the AP article does bring up the age issue, and the Darin Wedel example is excellent.  Unfortunately, the authors allow my friend Vivek Wadhwa (who actually agrees with me that the H-1B program is widely abused) to attribute the problems of older engineers to their not keeping up with advances in technology.  On the contrary, tons of older engineers with up-to-date skills find it difficult to get even a job interview, let alone an offer.  Most wind up leaving the field (and thus are not counted in the unemployment statistics).  Even Vivek has stated, “…even if the [older] $120,000 programmer gets the right skills, companies would rather hire the younger workers. That’s really what’s behind this.”  So the skills issue is phony, a red herring.

Vivek, by the way, has also quoted a Microsoft official as saying that the firm just doesn’t have many jobs for “older” people. Microsoft is in the vanguard of lobbying Congress for expanding the yearly cap on visas.

A few months ago I was invited to participate in an industry panel whose featured speaker was a Dropbox Vice President.  Actually, an over-35 friend of mine had just applied to Dropbox the week before — and had been summarily rejected the next day, with the firm not even bothering with a phone interview.  My friend has a Harvard degree, 20 years of software development experience, and most important, specific modern skills that Dropbox wants.  When I mentioned this, the Dropbox VP, who is in charge of recruiting, admitted that he doesn’t have time to even glance at the tons of CVs his firm receives.  (He also agreed that the immobile nature of many H-1Bs holds down their wages.)

So, while I appreciate the sentiment of the AP article, the piece is not quite right.  Indeed, even the quote of me is not quite right.


11 thoughts on “AP Article on H-1B Visa Good, But Misses the Boat

  1. Norm, I’ve followed your work for going on 14 years, and I find it brings a data-driven sophistication to the debate of foreign skilled labor that is both enlightening and accessible. As one of the few practicing attorneys who are sympathetic to your stance, it is particularly useful as secondary analysis of data that I could never otherwise access.

    My one wish over the years is that you might be more specific– actually a lot more specific– about changes to the immigration statutes– and just as importantly– changes to the DHS and DOL regulations and written “policies” that would incorporate the reforms you so nobly and doggedly pursue. In immigration law, everything is in the details, and over the past generation we have seen reform after reform that failed to achieve the policy objectives its sponsors claimed would ensue. I believe you have the technical legal knowledge to present your proposed reforms in draft legal format, Exhibit A being your excellent 2003 law review article.

    Please consider devoting some space in the new blog to proposing and debating the actual texts of your policy reforms. While entirely new proposed language would be helpful, of even greater value would be the smaller technical changes and tweaks to specific subsections or even paragraphs of the INA and CFRs that would effectuate one or more of the goals on your policy agenda. Debate over texts on a blog like yours that is read by professionals in the area of IT labor and human resource policy would really do our country a signal service.

    Best of luck with the new blog, and thank you for your continued professional devotion to the national interest of American skilled workers over the decades.


    • Thanks, Michael. Absolutely, “the devil is in the details.” But when even members of Congress don’t know the details of the legislation they vote on (and endorse vigorously in the press), it’s hard to get the public to read the small print.


  2. Ahh, once I’d submitted that one, I got the “regular” wordpress comment submission text-box.

    The discussion at Slash Dot (now owned by Dice) is well under way.

    I sent the other URL for the suburban Chicago IL Daily Herald because, while it’s the same AP piece, it has a box which mentions Jay Palmer’s law-suit.

    State Department reports that over 135,991 H-1B visas were issued in fiscal year 2012, and over 153,794 H-1B visas in FY 2013.


  3. Norm: As I noted in my commentary, the more-balanced (though lacking in key points that you have noted) widely-disseminated AP coverage of the H-1B Visa controversy in this article is a positive outlier. I wonder what the “back story” was.


    • There have been some excellent articles in the press, including several very insightful ones last year in the Washington Post. In general, the problem has not been so much lack of balance as lack of depth.


  4. To Mr. Hethmon, esq. – Mr. Matloff is always very polite, but I will be more blunt – asking for proposed reforms details is a waste of time at this point, because it assumes good faith on the part of those drafting the reforms. In reality, the staffers who draft the legislation take the input of the lobbyists, and the reason “reform after reform that failed to achieve the policy objectives its sponsors claimed would ensue” is that what is achieved is exactly what the lobbyists intended – no real change in their ability to exploit H-1b for great economic gain, at the expense of the domestic talent pool.


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