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.