Recently a short conference was held on H-1B and related issues at the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS is a highly august, 150-year-old private organization, whose research arm, the NRC, is frequently commissioned by Congress to do studies on controversial issues. I’ve often cited their 2001 study, conducted when Congress requested an analysis of the tech industry’s claims of a labor shortage, claims by critics of rampant age discrimination in tech, and so on.
The Web page for the recent conference states that videos will be available of the proceedings. I had intended to wait for them before posting here, but since they are still not available, I’m commenting now on the basis of the posted papers and slides. I’ll comment on more information if it becomes available (including possibly from some who read this and were present at the conference).
According to a Computerworld article, the NAS conference was cosponsored by Microsoft. I was disappointed to learn this, as Microsoft has contributed funding to a number of organizations and individuals who do research that takes a supportive view of the H-1B program. It’s not clear to what degree Microsoft played a hands-on role in this case. I actually know very little about the conference, and did not hear of it until it had already occurred. One person who was present did tell me that there were a number of people from industry, e.g. Google, in attendance.
Judging from the posted statements and slides at the above conference URL, it appears that the tone was low-key, and the speakers who spoke directly on H-1B (some were addressing much more general, abstract issues, and others focused on immigration policies of other countries) tended to be people with moderate views on the issue.
One thing that caught my eye in reading the posted materials is that some speakers apparently supported what I consider an unwarranted separation of the “bad” H-1Bs, those that are hired directly from India by the outsourcing companies such as Tata, and the “good” ones, foreign students hired by mainstream firms from U.S. university graduate (typically Master’s) programs. As many of you know, I consider this dichotomy inaccurate (the mainstream firms abuse H-1B just as much as Tata et al, albeit with a higher class of workers) and destructive (the Senate bill scapegoats the Indian firms but actually expands H-1B for the mainstream). However, lacking access to the videos, I am not sure that this was indeed what some speakers discussed.
One troubling aspect is that there seemed to be quite a bit of unnuanced discussion of the “contributions” and “importance” of immigrants in STEM. For example, citing the percentage of immigrants among U.S. patent filers sounds wonderful, but the fact is that the per-capita patenting rate for the immigrants is lower than that of the natives. This was shown in research by Jennifer Hunt in general (who was one of the organizers of the conference, but who did not present a paper there), and in my own work for the case of former computer science foreign students who went on to work in the U.S. after graduation. When one views this lower patenting rate in the context of the (mostly indirect but real) displacement of Americans from STEM due to the foreign influx, one sees there is a net loss of talent level and innovation to the U.S. economy, something the speakers should be alarmed at.
By the way, a quote in the Computerworld article is a good example of Microsoft misinformation on the H-1B issue over the years. A few years ago, for instance, the firm insisted that its H-1Bs are paid “over $100,000 a year to start” until publicly shown wrong. The current article quotes Microsoft’s Bill Kamela:
Focusing on computer science related degrees, Kamela said that a recent graduate “probably has four job offers today,” and can go shopping for the best salary offer.
That’s quite counter to what I found last Spring, in my queries to placement officers at two universities and my own survey of the graduating students in my department. Mind you, tech employers are indeed focusing on new grads and there has been a modest uptick in their salaries, but the employers are not hiring a large number of them.
And the cogniscenti among you will note, concerning the above point about going “shopping for the best salary offer,” that that is one of the biggest reasons Microsoft and other mainstream tech firms like hiring H-1Bs so much: After hire, the foreign workers CAN’T “go shopping,” as they are effectlively immobile (if they are also being sponsored for a green card, typical among the mainstream firms). As I’ve noted before, this not only means they get smaller raises than do comparable Americans (a finding in the NRC report), but even more important, they can’t leave the employer in the lurch by bolting in the midst of an urgent project.