Bibliography on Research Regarding H-1B and Related Issues

A couple of months ago, I wrote up a draft of an annotated bibliography of research papers on H-1B, employment-based green cards and claims of STEM labor shortages.  I sent the draft to a few people for comment, preferring not to make it public until I had fleshed the document out some more.

I’ve now got the bibliography ready for public consumption.  Again, note that it is annotated; each item contains my comments as to what I consider the salient content of the research, including flaws in the work.  In light of this latter point, note too that selection of a research paper for this bibliography does not imply that I endorse the work; if some research is flawed but widely cited, I tend to include it.

I do have more items to add, and will do so when I have time.  Suggestions for additions are welcome.

The document is available at heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/AnnBib.pdf  Happy reading!  I think that even those of you who know the literature well will find some surprises.

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Joe Green of Fwd.us Has a Relapse of His Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Joe Green is President of Fwd.us, a group founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to advocate for relief to unauthorized immigrants, and expansion of the H-1B work visa and employer-sponsored green card programs.  Green was a friend of  Zuckerberg at Harvard.

Some of you may be surprised to know that I first heard of Green when he was a senior in high school.  A TV documentary ran at the time on how difficult it was for kids to get admitted to top colleges, and Green was one of those profiled.  I mention this as full disclosure, as I recall that I found the kids’ attitudes to be very cynical, more interested in prestige than in a desire to learn.  I’m saying, in other words, that this has prejudiced me against him somewhat.

Yet even without that, Green’s famous gaffe in Fwd.us advocating that the tech industry muscle its way around DC, would have been enough to set up a permanent red flag in my mind:

We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals…We have individuals with a lot of money. If deployed properly this can have huge influence in the current campaign finance environment…

Green later issued an apology, but now he’s said something much worse, if more subtle.  Asked why the tech industry wants to hire more foreign workers at a time when Microsoft, Cisco, HP, Intel, IBM and so on are laying off Americans, Green explained that the foreign workers are better than the Americans.  I’ll come back to this issue of worker quality shortly, but the salient point is that Green is admitting that the industry is firing U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and replacing them by H-1Bs.

Other than the special subcategory called H-1B Dependent Employers, it is perfectly legal to replace American workers by H-1Bs (and for that matter, to hire the H-1Bs in lieu of Americans in the first place).  But this was a highly, highly impolitic statement for Green to make, as it completely undermines the industry’s claim that it hires the H-1Bs only as a last resort, when no qualified Americans can be found for the jobs.  In this case, the Americans were qualified by definition, as they had in fact been doing the jobs before the layoffs.

Indeed, if an actual tech CEO, say Zuckerberg, had made such a statement, he might encounter problems getting his/her foreign workers green cards, as the latter do require the employer to show that no qualified Americans could be found for the jobs.

Now, what about that issue of quality that Green brought up?  His statement, “The difference between someone who’s truly great and just sort of okay is really huge,” is definitely correct.  I’ve often said the same thing, and once again must interject that I strongly support facilitating the immigration of “the best and the brightest” from around the world..  But is his claim, that weaker Americans are being replaced by stronger H-1Bs, really true?  Even one of the interviewers asked Green, “Are you saying that all of the [Americans] who are laid off are not talented and all the people from these other countries are valued employees?”  Green, realizing how unreasonable his remark sounded (and was), didn’t really answer, but since he did say it, let’s take a look.

I’ve mentioned my EPI paper before, which is on this very topic, specifically the quality of the former CS and EE foreign students who are now in the U.S. tech workforce.  Note that this is the group highlighted by the industry lobbyists as being of special interest to them, and in fact Green mentioned them.  In the CS case, the former foreign students turned out to have lower per-capita patenting rates, attended less selective universities, and were less likely to work in R&D, all compared to U.S. natives.  For EE, the former foreign students were on par with the American natives on the first criterion, no data was analyzed on the second, and the EE former foreign students were weaker than the Americans on the last one.   All of this is counter to Green’s claim.

But there’s more.  I submit that the industry actually is not that obsessed with having quality engineers.  Their first priority is to have cheap, immobile workers, where I remind you that here “cheap” implies young, in addition to often implying foreign. Yes, quality matters a lot–but only after the hiring pool has been narrowed by the filters of cheapness and immobility.  (I’ve cited other factors now and then, including convenience of hiring, meaning being able to pick up the workers one wants at university campuses rather than casting a wide net.)

Here’s a personal example.  Some years ago I gave a talk in a public debate on H-1B, and after the talk a man came up to me, introducing himself as the CEO of a Silicon Valley firm.  He said, “You’re wrong about our hiring H-1Bs as cheap labor.  There really is a tech labor shortage, and my company is having real trouble finding software engineers.”  I replied, “Well, my wife is a software engineer.  I’ll have her apply for a position in your company, and we’ll see what happens.  Her surname is different from mine, so you won’t know it’s her.”  He immediately backtracked, protesting, “No, that’s not fair, she’s probably making too much money!”  Indeed. Clearly this CEO had cheap labor as his first priority; quality didn’t even enter into the conversation.

I’ve seen this happen countless times.  In a recent posting, for instance, I described my encounter with a Dropbox VP:

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.

Clearly Dropbox’s summary rejection of my friend shows that quality isn’t Dropbox’s priority filter either.  Instead, he too was perceived as “making too much money.”   And remember, Dropbox was one of the major founders of Fwd.us.

And that makes for a bit of irony.  My friend was a top math student at Harvard.  So here we have Green, whose struggles with high school math made him worry that he wouldn’t get into Harvard, is now, a dozen years later, defending a company that automatically rejected the former Harvard math star for a job.

Again, the second irony is that Green’s comment about engineer quality being so important was correct.  That’s why the industry’s hiring policy, to filter on cheapness/youth first and then apply the quality criterion on those who remain is penny wise, pound foolish.

DIY Legislating

My title here of course refers to President Obama’s plan to circumvent a Congress that is deadlocked on immigration legislation, by issuing Executive Orders aimed at accomplishing part of what the Senate tried and failed to do. Regarding foreign tech worker policy, Computerworld reports that President Obama is contemplating finalizing action such as granting spouses of H-1B visa workers (who hold H-4 visas)  the right to work, and not counting spouses in green card caps.

The degree to which such measures would impact U.S. citizen and permanent resident tech workers is unclear.  Opening the labor market to the H-4s would clearly have an adverse impact on those already in the market, but the degree is uncertain.  As I’ve pointed out many times, one of the major attractions of the H-1B program to employers is that the H-1Bs are essentially immobile if they are also being sponsored for a green card, and sometimes of limited mobility even if not currently being sponsored (e.g. the employer promises sponsorship in the future).  The H-4s would have no such restriction, which ironically may reduce their chances to find a job.  And since many have been out of the labor market for quite a while, they may quickly learn what many Americans have found–if you’ve been out of a job for six months or more, many employers won’t touch you.

Though unfortunately neglected by many of the H-1B critics, including researchers, green card issues are just as important as H-1B.  The Senate would give fast-track green cards to foreign STEM students in U.S. graduate schools, a measure I’ve strongly opposed, as the new grads are almost all young, thus exacerbating the already-disgraceful age discrimination problem that is rampant in the tech industry.  But the effect of speeding things up for those already in line waiting for green cards is less clear.

Of course, the aspect that should trouble Americans of all political persuasions is whether Obama–a former constitutional law professor–has the right to do all this.  It would seem obvious that he has no such right.  The courts tend to stress legislative intent, in this case presumably meaning that if Congress had meant the H-4s to have work rights, Congress would have said so.  Yet, when President George W. Bush changed the work rights period for newly-graduated STEM foreign students from 12 months to 29, a Programmers Guild lawsuit opposing the action was dismissed.  The cause for dismissal was a lack of standing, but don’t we all have standing, in the sense that OUR Constitution is being flouted?  Congress did say 12, after all; Bush (later reaffirmed by Obama) can’t say that Congress meant 29.

As noted in the above Computerworld article, former congressperson Bruce Morrison, who chaired the committee that wrote the H-1B statute in the Immigration Act of 1990, claims that that status makes him an authority on whether Obama can unilaterally change the Act.  Yet Morrison is now a lobbyist, with a vested interest (via his client) in such changes–how can he have any credibility?  And it is irritating that Morrison continues to say his client, IEEE-USA, represents U.S. engineers on foreign-worker issues, when in fact it has never polled its members on the topic.  (The organization, formerly in the vanguard of objection to foreign-worker programs, changed radically after coming under industry pressure around the year 2000.)

The recent Computerworld article cited above also reports that Obama is being asked to institute a priority system for years in which H-1B is oversubscribed, with the Indian “bodyshops” being given lower priority.  As I’ve frequently argued, this is a scapegoating effort to distract attention from the fact that the entire industry abuses the foreign worker programs, not just Tata et al.  But a prioritization does seem to be within the Executive Branch’s powers, and if so, a much better approach would be to prioritize by salary offered, as has been proposed by some.  This would likely reduce the amount of abuse, though certainly not eliminate it.

And where does this all stop?  If presidents can get into the legislation business, will their “laws” be, say, exempt from the Bill of Rights?  The latter uses phrasing such as “Congress shall make no law…,” but what happens when the president makes “laws”?  Surprisingly, this issue seems not to have been settled, making the recent actions by Bush and Obama all the more troubling.

Where Are They Now?

You know the genre.  Occasionally a newspaper or magazine will run an article titled, “Where Are They Now?”, and dig up the whereabouts and current activities of previously famous but now obscure movie stars, athletes or politicians.  Well, not the politicians, as we already know what they’re doing now–they’re lobbyists. 🙂

Speaking of lobbyists, it occurred to me the other day that asking “Where are they now?” would be an instructive exercise in viewing the “poster children” the tech industry lobbyists and their allies have used as examples in the press over the years.  The message has always been, “Mr. X is brilliant, so the U.S. is lucky that he is working for an American firm on an H-1B visa” or “Ms. Y is brilliant, and American firm Z would love to hire her, but the visa cap is filled, so we’re going to lose Y to one of our competitor nations.”

A couple of my recent posts here have concerned the slickness of the industry’s PR people–the industry may not hire “the best and the brightest” engineers, but they definitely hire the slickest PR people–and my topic this evening will continue that theme  Specifically, we’ll look at those former poster children.  Did Mr. X indeed turn out to be brilliant?  Did we lose Ms. Y, either to her home country or to a third nation that has a broader immigration policy than ours?  I’ve done a search in my archives, and have come up with a few former poster children.  Where are they now?

I’ll take them in alphabetical order.  I wish to state first, though, that presumably all or most of them have green cards by now, with some having naturalized.  They are either now Americans or on their way to becoming so, and I welcome them.  My complaint is with the employers and the lobbyists, not these former foreign workers.  So, here there are:

Saurabh Awasthi:

This is a case of special interest to me, as a reporter who had written about Awasthi back in 2008 called me a couple of months ago.  The reporter, Mark Roth, was worried about cases like “Ms. Y” above, saying that he believed the U.S. is currently in the process of losing lots of foreign talents due to lack of visas.  Mark told me that he had written about such “loss” in 2008, using Awasthi as an example of a foreign student graduating from a U.S. school but who had been forced to return to his home country because of a shortage of work visas.

After the call, I looked up Awasthi, and found his LinkedIn entry.  Turns out that he had not been forced to return to India after all!  He landed a job with a U.S. firm in the financial field, which had been his goal.  We don’t know whether Awasthi is brilliant, like Mr. X and Ms. Y, but as a CMU grad let’s stipulate that he must be bright.  However, the 2008 fright that “Awasthi is being forced to return home” turned out to be unfounded.

Amrita Mahale:

She was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about H-1B.  I’ve long supported facilitating the immigration of “the best and the brightest” to the U.S., and I believe that Mahale may well qualify.  For example, according to her LinkedIn profile, she had been a gold medalist at one of the campuses of the Indian Institute of Technology, India’s top engineering university.  Alas, she didn’t stay in engineering, choosing instead a business career, and after a couple of years at Google she returned to India.   However, this was not due to lack of a work visa, as the WSJ article said she did hold an H-1B visa.  So she was not like Ms. Y, and though Mahale may be very bright, her career has been in business management, hardly consistent with the “STEM innovator” image promoted by the lobbyists.

Cristina Martinez-Mortolo:

She was the star witness in a Bloomberg Businessweek piece titled “America Losing Technology Workers Denied in Visa Lottery.”  Martinez-Mortolo warned that without the visa, she would have to leave both her job and her husband, and return to Panama.  That was in March 2013.  It’s not clear what her husband’s status is, etc., but her LinkedIn page says she is still here, still working for SendHub.  At any rate, though she is presumably doing a fine job in Customer Support for that firm, that is hardly an earthshaking job that a U.S. citizen or permanent resident could not do.  As I pointed out at the time, a message she sent out to customers certainly didn’t sound like her job was so special:

Cristina – SendHub Support

Jan 21, 2013 06:42AM PST SendHub Agent

 

Hi!

Thank you for reaching out with questions – we’ll be happy to
help.

The Free plan includes 500 messages perm month. Messages you send
and receive will be discounted from your 500 available messages.

We hope this helps. Please let us know if you have more questions,
and thanks for checking out SendHub!

This mundane job may have its challenges, as most jobs do, but it certainly doesn’t live up to the breathless title of the Businessweek article.  Lots of Americans could tell customers about the Free plan too.

Sanjay Mavinkurve:

He was the hero in a New York Times article titled “Tech Recruiting Clashes With Immigration Rules.”  Mavinkurve, it seems, had an H-1B visa at the time (2009) while working for Google, but his wife didn’t, so he moved to Google’s Toronto office.  The article claimed that Mavinkurve had solved a knotty problem that had stumped Google’s engineers.  John Miano disputed this, pointing out that Mavinkurve’s solution actually used a well-known old algorithm.  But the guy is a Harvard grad, so let’s count that as best/brightest (though I know a number of Americans with similar high-powered STEM degrees that can’t get STEM work).  So, did we lose him to Canada or some other foreign country?  No, apparently not.

His LinkedIn profile says he’s cofounder of a startup in Seattle, since 2011.  Maybe his wife is in Vancouver and he commutes to Seattle, assuming his H-1B is still good.  But the bottom line is that he is cofounding an American company, not one in India as the NYT had feared.

Sandeep Nijsure:

Nijsure is Vivek Wadhwa’s lead example in a column not-so-subtly titled, “They’re Taking Their Brains and Going Home.”  Yet, by Vivek’s own account, Nijsure is the epitome of my characterization of most H-1Bs as “ordinary people, doing ordinary work”:  Degree from University of North Texas, working in Quality Assurance, i.e. software testing.  No doubt he is a solid engineer, but seemingly not out of the ordinary.  He is currently back in India, working for Symantec offshore.  Vivek writes that Nijsure had a visa and was being sponsored for a green card, but “he worried about his aging parents. He missed watching cricket, celebrating Hindu festivals and following the twists of Indian politics. His wife was homesick, too, and her visa didn’t allow her to work.”  So, the availability of a visa was at most one part of the reason he went back, and as mentioned, he was NOT indispensable in the U.S.  There are lots of qualified Americans who could do that work.

Girija Subramaniam:

She was another example in that same 2009 column by Vivek.  She was being sponsored for a green card by TI, but got fed up with the long wait, and Vivek reports, “Frustrated, she has applied for fast-track Canadian permanent residency and expects to move north of the border by the end of the year.” But no!  She’s actually in DC.  She’s been working continuously in the DC area since 2008.  She too is a test engineer, a very ordinary job that could be done by many Americans.

These are all the poster cases I could find in my archives, but the theme comes through loud and clear even in these few examples:   The lobbyists’ claims that we are losing outstanding technological talents to our competitor nations due to low visa caps is just false.  There must be some examples somewhere, but the examples given by the advocates themselves just don’t support their claims.

Note:  H-1B is only one possible path for hiring a foreign worker.  The foreign STEM students can work for 29 months after their degree; a company with foreign branches can send the worker abroad for a year, then bring him/her to the U.S. on an L-1 visa after a year; for really outstanding people there is the O-1 visa; etc.  The H-1B may be more convenient, but the notion that either it’s H-1B or not hiring the person at all is generally not true.

As Senator Grassley put it so well about the industry’s claims, “No one should be fooled.”