The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), is a very prestigious organization that prides itself on doing in-depth investigations that the mainstream press lacks the resources — or the journalistic stomach — to pursue. The organization is headed by the distinguished Bay Area editor Phil Bronstein, and I’ve always been one of CIR’s admirers.
Yet I was highly disappointed by a recent piece on the H-1B work visa that CIR did with NBC Bay Area, with a focus on illegal behavior by certain employers. I generally have no interest in reports involving violations of H-1B law, which I believe are counterproductive, in a very real sense: Such investigations actually harm the chances of attaining real, fair reform of the H-1B program. I will explain why below, but first let’s look at what happened with CIR.
Actually, I had suggested to CIR back in March 2013 that they look into the H-1B issue. I’m one of the organizers of the Bay Area R Users Group (R is a programming language), and we held our meeting that month at CIR. After the meeting, I briefly explained to CIR’s Coulter Jones the problems with H-1B, and he promised to look into it. I don’t know whether this led to the recently-published report, but I’m told by another researcher that CIR started working on it more than a year ago, so maybe they did heed my suggestion.
But if so, that was the last advice CIR took from me. Their reporter, Matt Smith, contacted me in May 2014, outlining the scope of his project for me, which focused on illegal behavior of Indian “bodyshops” (rent-a-programmer agencies, sometimes called “IT staffing firms” or “outsourcers”). He had listened to the media briefing on H-1B organized by Sen. Sessions’ staff, in which I had been a participant.
Smith was particularly interested in my point that H-1Bs, at least those being sponsored for green cards, are immobile, “handcuffed” by their employers. Smith mistook that to mean the Indian bodyshops, rather than the Silicon Valley class of employers I had discussed. (The bodyshops rarely sponsor their workers for green cards.) I corrected him, and explained that I could not participate in investigations like his, as they amount to unwarranted scapegoating of the Indian firms while ignoring the abuse that pervades the entire industry.
I told Smith,
The handcuffing I was referring to involves the Googles and the Intels, NOT the [Indian] H-1B-dependent firms. If the employer sponsors the H-1B for a green card, the H-1B is basically immobile. As I said this morning [in the Sessions briefing], the Silicon Valley firms hugely value this, even more than having cheap labor.
The (mainstream) industry lobbyists have engaged in a conscious effort to demonize the Indian firms, so as to deflect attention from themselves. For this reason, I make it a principle to NOT discuss the H-1B-dependent firms with the press…
You may find the following of interest: “Stop Blaming Indian Companies for Visa Abuse,” Bloomberg View, Aug. 26, 2013.
Smith should have known that my remarks in the briefing concerned the Silicon Valley firms, not the bodyshops, because I had emphasized the point. In fact, there was an exchange on this during the briefing between Michael Teitelbaum and me. I never heard from Smith again, and there is not even a single mention in the CIR report of abuse by the Silicon Valley firms.
The green-card based handcuffing is well-known, having been noted for instance in the congressionally-commissioned NRC report. Prominent immigration lawyers pitch handcuffing as one of the most attractive features to employers of hiring foreign workers, as seen in this posting by the former designer of Texas Instruments’ immigration policy. All legal, of course.
It’s ironic that CIR quotes a Cisco spokesperson as saying the firm has the highest ethical standards and would not knowingly allow such abuses. If CIR had chosen to do a broader investigation, it would have found that Cisco itself had been investigated by the Dept. of Labor for its own direct hiring of H-1Bs (not its use of the bodyshops), in which it had been placing deceptive job ads that apparently had the goal of excluding Americans from the jobs in question. DOL found the practice to be legal, which unfortunately is true. As I’ve often said, the only difference between the Silicon Valley firms and the bodyshops is that the former hire lawyers and lobbyists who wear more expensive suits.
Now, why does it matter? The answer is simple — Senate Bill 744, the immigration reform bill. Reports like CIR’s send the message that though there is some egregious abuse by the bodyshops, the H-1B program is fundamentally sound, and it is used responsibly by the Googles and Intels (and Ciscos). If you were a member of Congress, armed with this information and the further claim by the Googles and Intels that H-1B is crucial to the tech industry, wouldn’t you vote to expand foreign tech worker programs, as proposed in S.744? The bill would greatly increase the yearly H-1B cap, and establish a new green card program that is in effect a backdoor H-1B increase in its own right. Meanwhile, the minor restrictions on the bodyshops could be circumvented in various ways.
Though I have strong views on H-1B, I don’t consider myself to be a political activist on the issue. But I do offer advice to the activists (who unfortunately don’t heed it any more than Matt Smith did 😦 ), and for the reasons presented above, I tell them that they are shooting themselves in the foot by highlighting reports like this one by CIR. S.744 would make wages and job opportunities for U.S. citizens and permanent residents in the tech field WORSE, not better. And all because the activists, the press and so on essentially gave Congress “permission” to expand H-1B in the manner of S.744, by supporting the notion that the H-1B program is fine except for use by the bodyshops.
The industry lobbyists are well aware of this dynamic, and consciously build this image of “Intel Si!, Infosys No!” Instead of being embarrassed by revelations such as CIR’s of illegal actions, the lobbyists exploit it, by saying that fines of bodyshops for illegalities show that “the system is working,” and that if anything, Congress should appropriate more funding for enforcement. This deftly distracts attention from the central systemic problems of the H-1B program itself.
But what might explain this highly selective reporting by CIR? There may be various factors at work, but the fact that CIR’s board of directors includes executives from Twitter, Square, and several tech-oriented venture capital firms must be considered a possibility. Such entities may or may not have put pressure on CIR concerning this report, but at the very least, one does not offend friends of one’s boss, right? It’s easier to take the “safe” route, by limiting the report to the bodyshops. In any event, my previous admiration for CIR — which by the way has been a leader in use of computers for graphic visualization in reporting — has greatly declined.