Where I Stand on the H-1B Work Visa

(I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times by journalists over the 20+ years I’ve been writing about the H-1B work visa and employment-based green cards. That means I’ve had my share of misquotes, in rare cases due to overt bias on the part of the journalists but in most cases due to the overwhelming complexity of the issues, as well as the world-class ability of the industry lobbyists to obfuscate the issues and confuse the hapless journalists.  To reduce the possibility that I’m misquoted, I’m writing this blog post, which I will ask all journalists to read before they interview me.  Meanwhile, I think this post will be informative for all you readers out there.)

Information for journalists interested in the issues of the H-1B work visa, employment-based green cards, claims of STEM labor shortages, and so on:

  • I have always strongly supported the notion of bringing “the best and the brightest” talents to the U.S.  For instance, I just recently responded to an employer reference request about a foreign student from China, in which I urged them to hire him.  I emphasized that he is especially creative in developing software, and in response to the employer’s request for advice on how to best use the student’s talents, I wrote “Give him a lot of responsibility, and a free rein creatively,” a very strong statement regarding a new graduate.
  • On the other hand, only a small percentage of foreign students in computer science (CS) are in the “best and brightest” league.  In fact, research done by various academics in the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that on average, the foreign students in CS and STEM are actually weaker than their American counterparts, which my own research has confirmed.
  • I have never called for the abolition of the H-1B work visa.  On the contrary, I’ve made specific proposals on how to “mend it, not end it.”
  • I’ve never taken any funding on any topic (not just H-1B and related issues) from the industry or any organization with an interest in H-1B.  This is the FIRST question a responsible journalist should ask those whom he/she interviews — “Do you have any funding from the industry?” It matters — no matter how much a researcher might protest impartiality, one does not “bite the hand that feeds one.”
  • You should be skeptical about studies regarding H-1B and related issues.  Many economists are great number crunchers, but if they don’t understand the numbers they are crunching, their conclusions can be very far off base.  A case in point concerns research into whether H-1Bs tend to be underpaid, relative to the wage their skills and talent would command in the open market. Android programming skills, for example, bring about a 20% wage premium on the open market, so one must ask if the given study takes skill sets into  account.  See my Migration Letters paper for a detailed account of the pitfalls, and also one of my previous posts here regarding claims of “job-creating powers” of H-1Bs.  And most importantly, my stance has always been that the biggest salary savings accrued by hiring H-1Bs is due to age, as noted below, something most wage studies ignore.
  • Indeed, the H-1B program is largely about age.  Employers mostly want new or recent graduates, and rarely hire engineers past age 35. Younger workers cost less, and the H-1Bs are overwhelmingly young. Employers say only young people have modern skill sets, an absurd claim in view of the fact that those new grads were taught those skills by “old” professors.
  • My research findings that the H-1B program is widely abused are thoroughly mainstream, contrary to the “everybody agrees we need more H-1Bs” image spun by the industry lobbyists.  For example, two broad-based congressionally-commissioned employer surveys confirmed that H-1B workers tend to be paid less than comparable Americans (but still legally so, due to loopholes).  One of those studies documented the age discrimination issue, and noted the immobility of the foreign workers.  As mentioned earlier, NBER research has shown that the foreign students at U.S. universities tend to be weaker.  For the record, I happen to be a longtime registered Democrat and minority activist. Click here for my bio.
  • Please do NOT succumb to the industry lobbyists’ tactic of using the term native-born  in place of the word American.  First, it is incorrect — the tech work force, as well as the university student population, consists not just of U.S. natives but also naturalized citizens and green card holders. Second, it’s a “psych,”  meant to evoke the word nativist.  Trust me, this is deliberate, often leading to extremely awkward style in order to force the term several times in the same sentence.
  • Please do not scapegoat the Indian IT services firms.  Abuse of H-1B pervades the entire industry, including in the hiring of foreign students from U.S. universities. The “Intels” are just as culpable as the “Infosyses.”
  • Unemployment rates can be quite misleading.  CS rates may be low relative to auto factory workers, but they are similar to college grads in general.  And when faced with difficulties finding work in their field, CS people often switch fields, and thus do not show up in unemployment data for CS jobs.  One does have to pay the mortgage or the rent, after all.
  • For many employers, especially those in Silicon Valley, the appeal of hiring H-1Bs (with green card sponsorship) is to acquire IMMOBILE workers, who in essence can’t leave them for another employer.  This can be far more valuable than wage savings.
  • The solutions are actually simple:
    • For ALL foreign workers (H-1B, L-1, green card sponsorees, OPT), set a wage floor of the 50th percentile for the given occupation (SOC code) as a whole, NOT broken down by experience levels (so as to deal with the age discrimination issue). Employers must not be exempt from payroll tax requirements and the like for OPT workers. OPT should NOT be extended.
    • Allow all foreign workers full freedom of movement in the labor market.
    • Do NOT create any new foreign-worker programs, such as fast-track green cards for foreign students at U.S. universities.
  • Advocates of the H-1B program often make unguarded statements counter to their carefully constructed public platform.  Click here for some educational quotes.

Thanks for your attention to this complex but vital topic.

The Unheard Voices

Today everyone in my department received a message from our office manager with the word immigration in the Subject line.  This certainly is not an everyday occurrence, so my interest was definitely piqued.  It turned out that someone on campus had asked the departments to help promote a conference to be held at my university next month.  Nice list of speakers, but all with cushy jobs in academia and think tanks.  None of them appears to be someone who is directly impacted by immigration policy in terms of making a living.  In the enclosure below, I’ll forward a message from a reader that puts a human face on the claimed STEM “shortage.”  Numerous studies, plus a plain common sense look at the lack of rapidly rising wages, counter that claim, yet Congress wants to essentially grant automatic green cards to all the foreign STEM grad students at U.S. universities, exacerbating the STEM surplus.

My reader, a techie consultant who has seen his contract rates fall with the rise of the H-1B program, recounts this incident:

A bit of a sad little story from the world.

You may recall my story of a few years ago of the newly graduated civil engineer who was tending bar, and this is along those lines. I went into a restaurant at the mall on Saturday, the mall was crowded to capacity, but around 3PM I was able to get a seat at the bar to grab a salad and watch a little college football. As we watched and the barkeeper cheered it turned out she was a recent graduate from [prestigious university name deleted]. So exactly why was she tending bar? Well, she was a biology major. Couldn’t find biology work other than $15/hr lab work at the university. The young man sitting next to me suddenly said, “Hey me too!” and it turns out he just graduated recently with a biology degree from [another university], and is currently employed – as a server at another nearby restaurant. The discussion then turned to their student loans. As I was getting up to leave I stopped to talk to the guy, mentioned my brother with his doctorate in molecular biology still struggling with employment in the field, and I worked around to asking if this guy knew anything about “H-1B”. By that name he didn’t. I explained a little and he said, “Oh yeah that”, but nothing more.

Both the barkeep and the guy seemed clear-headed and presentable. Now, this story is a little self-selecting, if a biology major did find biology work she wouldn’t be there tending bar, but as soon as it got a quick second from a random guy, that was confirming evidence I thought worth repeating. Even with the recent “executive action” on immigration that increases the number of foreign students who will now stay and compete for jobs – especially entry level jobs – I wondered if he would mention that either, but no. I hurt for these kids. Back in the day it was mostly true, if you graduated with a STEM degree you’d generally find a job in that field quickly enough (and at much better wages than today, but that’s another discussion). Today, what are we doing?

I replied to him that I had also seen similar cases, and of course the saddest is that of Douglas Prasher, an “almost-Nobel laureate” who was found to be driving a shuttle van for a Toyota dealer when some fellow researchers won the Nobel based on extending Prasher’s research.

I learned today of a TED talk by Jan Ting of the Temple University law school, which I recommend to all.  It’s not that what he says is that novel, but the tone in which he states it, so matter of fact, reminiscent of Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s favorite biblical quote, “Come, let us reason together.”  Ting dares to say the obvious — real people do get hurt when policy is made.  Professor Thomas Sowell says so too, specifically regarding high-skilled immigration, in a more flamboyant manner, It would be nice if others were to emulate them.

Hidden in Plain Sight — Again

You may recall that a few years ago, Microsoft established a software development center in Vancouver, Canada, saying it was forced to do so because of a shortage of H-1B work visas in the U.S.  Well, now Microsoft has gotten the Canadian government to exempt them from a requirement that a firm may hire foreign workers only if it demonstrates insufficient numbers of qualified Canadians are available for the jobs.  (The American H-1B visa does not have this requirement for general employers.)

I reported on the Vancouver center back in May, when I pointed out that there was a glaring contradiction that no one seems to have noticed:  According to the BusinessWeek article, “There, Microsoft will hire and train 400 software developers from around the world to work on mobile and cloud projects.”  Did you catch that?  “…hire and TRAIN”!  Remember, the whole rationale for  hiring the foreign workers — claimed by U.S. employers and codified in Canadian law — is that the employers resort to hiring foreign workers because there are insufficient domestic workers who have the specialized skills for the jobs.  Yet Microsoft is TRAINING the foreign workers in these skills.

Yet no one seemed at the time to notice this “emperor has no clothes” situation back in May, just as no one quoted in the current article seems to fully realize this.

It’s a safe bet that the Vancouver move makes for great lobbying points on the Hill.  There’s nothing politicians fear more in the economics realm than the rallying cry, “Jobs are moving overseas!” (The fact that in this case we’re talking only about a 3-hour drive up I-5 doesn’t reduce the argument’s effectiveness, I’m sure.)  But what if those Hill dwellers (and their counterparts in Ottawa) knew the REAL situation in Vancouver?

Another Futile Call to Remedy the Post-Doc Problem

Our various national academies have published yet another report on the outrageous state of post-docs (post-doctoral researchers, typically in STEM), a perfect example of the principle that powerful interests won’t solve problems that even they admit are severe, if it would mean compromising the financial well-being of those interests.  In this case, those powerful interests are universities and research institutes, hiring cheap labor, both domestic and foreign.  And yes, the latter typically hold H-1B work visas, and according to one figure, about 60% of the post docs are foreign.  The salary and working conditions tend toward the Dickensian, clearly showing a huge surplus of labor — and yet Congress wants to give all foreign STEM students earning U.S. degrees automatic green cards.

As the article at the above link points out, this is hardly news.  Many national science organizations have noted it for years — see my Migration Letters paper for some references, for instance — and anyway, isn’t the problem obvious?  These scientists work for years at low wages, which are years of painful limbo, as they have no idea whether a career awaits them at the end of that time.  Imagine being age 35 and still working as a temp.  Most people have families, homes and so on by that age, and you’re still a low-paid temp with a highly uncertain future.

Of course, the spin placed on this by the universities is that national science research is underfunded, hence the labor surplus. Look at the way the article puts it (emphasis added):

All that [the good old days, when being a post doc was so pleasant]  changed, of course, since the 1970s, when Petsko was a postdoc, he said, “and not in a good way.” The plight of postdocs worsened in the last decade in particular, he said, due in part to the failure of federal science agencies to have budgets large enough to keep up with demand. Recent Ph.D.s also face a much tougher tenure-track academic job market, even in the STEM fields.

Interesting word, demand.  Let’s put that word in perspective:  Universities want research dollars.  To maximize the dollars, they maximize the number of researchers.  Producing more research brings in more dollars, which in turn requires more researchers to spend the money on, etc.  And cheap researchers are best, to “get more bang for the buck.”  That’s why the National Science Foundation has been so supportive of the H-1B program; even though the foreign workers are paid the same as the Americans, swelling the labor market reduces wages, in fact so much that not many Americans are interested in pursuing science research.  What I wrote in the 1990s holds even truer today:

Indeed, Massy and Goldman point out [in a Stanford-RAND Corp. study] that production of Ph.D.’s in science and engineering is geared not to labor market needs, but rather to the “needs'” of university faculty to produce Ph.D.’s! A faculty member’s rise in the ranks will depend to a great degree on how much federal and private grant funds he/she is able to attract, and how many Ph.D. students he/she produces (the funds are used to provide financial support to the students). Massy and Goldman quote a chair of a major Computer Science Department as saying that he sets the enrollment level for his department’s graduate program by simply multiplying a per-faculty quota for Ph.D.’s by the number of faculty in the department; this is standard practice.

There is an interesting postscript concerning that Massy-Goldman report.  In 1995 some academic computer scientists found an apparent error there, due to a change in NSF definitions of CS, and announced that Massy agreed.  But in that announcement, CTO Forest Baskett of the then-high flying firm SGI said, “A trend I do find disturbing and counterproductive is the trend toward postdoctoral fellows in computer science…We’ve had a fabulous 30 year history of great relations between our computer science departments and a vibrant industry without postdoctoral fellows gumming up the works…This is a good model. Let’s not break it.”  Well, since that time the number of post docs in CS has grown tremendously; see my Migration Letters paper for references.  (Baskett also said that his firm didn’t need PhDs but said they are smart people.)  Again this illustrates academia’s addiction to cheap labor, and the surplus of PhDs.

Ah, but doesn’t our economy and society benefit from all that research, you ask?  I would be the first one to say that society should indeed invest in research.  But the huge emphasis on money has major perverse effects that actually reduce the societal/economic value of the research work that that money supports; see a related essay I was asked to write on “machine learning” and the like.  Here is a concrete example:

I once attended a talk by a very famous computer science professor whom I’ll call X.  He was presenting the results of his main research project at the time, a very complex and powerful computational system.  During the talk, in response to a question from the audience, it became clear that he really didn’t know his own project very well, not too surprising as he was at the top of a pyramid:  He had some Associate Professors run things, and they in turn supervised the post docs, who in turn supervised the doctoral students and so on.  In other words, the prodigious talent of Professor X was not being put to good use; his “job” was just to bring in the bucks.  The reader comment at the first link above says it well:  “I bet you dollars to donuts that the average quality of research would improve dramatically if (1) it wasn’t being carried out mostly/entirely by people who were still in the midst of their ‘apprenticeships’…”

And, most important, what became of that highly funded project of Prof. X’s, at one of the top five universities in the country?  The answer, as far as I know, is “basically nothing.”  Today, 20 years later, I am not aware of any major findings from the project that have been incorporated into practical systems today.  Indeed, a quick check in Google Scholar shows that even in the research world, X’s work on that project has rarely been cited after 2000.  Even accounting for the likely fact that some papers today might contain references to a chain of papers going back to X’s in the mid-1990s, it’s pretty clear that X’s project just hasn’t had much impact.

Again, I love doing research.  But today’s “business model” (an apt term) is just wrong, in myriad senses, including the sad plight of post docs.  And since so many of our government policy makers are so obsessed with competing with China, let me ask this simple question:  Why doesn’t China have a post doc system?

Proof by Internship Data

Following a BusinessWeek article quoting researchers who claim the tech labor shortage is a myth, tech entrepreneur Yuri Sagalov has responded with a blog post, “Immigration is about talent, not costs.”  The shortage is real and H-1Bs really are hired purely on the basis of talent rather than wage savings, insists Sagalov.  As “proof,” he cites the generous salaries some Silicon Valley companies are paying some of their interns.  I did use the qualifier some here twice, but let me assure you, if you are, say, an MIT student interning at Google, the firm is going to pay you quite handsomely.  But of course, Sagalov has set up a straw man here, a variation of the old “programmers make more than bus drivers argument.”

As I’ve often pointed out, the attraction of the H-1B program, at least in Silicon Valley, stems mainly from two factors:

  • The program supplies them with a YOUNG labor pool, and since younger is generally cheaper, H-1Bs are cheap relative to older (over age 35) U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Yes, young H-1Bs do also come somewhat cheaper than Americans of comparable quality (verified by, among others, two congressionally-commissioned employer surveys), but the real wage savings comes from the young nature of the H-1Bs.
  • Green card sponsorship provides employers with IMMOBILE labor, which is extremely valuable to the firms.  In fact, this is pitched by immigration attorneys as a major virtue of hiring foreign workers.

So, hiring H-1Bs is indeed more than an issue of simply obtaining talent.  I’d add, as I sometimes do, that another factor is convenience; firms like Sagalov’s like just recruiting foreign students from a local university, rather than having to spend genuine effort finding Americans to hire.

Worse, Sagalov’s firm, and his comments, follow the pattern so familiar by now in the industry:  His company defines a Senior Software Engineer title as corresponding to only 4 years of experience, so you can see that 35 is way past “senior.”  Sagalov says (if it was indeed he who wrote this, rather than a lobbyist supplying this boilerplate prose) that the law requires that H-1Bs be paid the prevailing wage, but he doesn’t tell you that the legally defined prevailing wage is a lowball figure, typically well below the real market value of the worker, given his/her talents, skill sets and so on. He cites $8,000 in legal fees as “evidence” that employers are not hiring H-1Bs to save money, but do the math: If the employer is saving, say, $25,000 per year over the 6 or more years it takes to get a green card, a one-time cost of $8,000 is nothing.

As my favorite quote of Sen. Grassley goes, “Nobody should be fooled.”

Greg Clark Seems to Miss the Boat on the Great Immigration Debate

When I referenced my UC Davis colleague, economist Giovanni Peri, last week, I didn’t realize I’d be discussing another one this week, Gregory Clark.  I don’t know Professor Clark, but I’ve certainly admired him for the highly successful, semi-technical/semi-popular, books he’s written.  See a self-synopsis of one of them in this New York Times op-ed.  He is definitely an out-of-the-box thinker.

But now Clark has (seemingly, though not actually) brought race into his writings, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, titled “The American Dream Is an Illusion:  Immigration and Inequality.”   I say “seemingly” here, because what he is really writing about is socioecnomic class, not race per se.  He presents data showing that descendents of Latino immigrants are NOT upwardly mobile in education, in contrast to other immigrant groups.   Many other groups have arrived in the U.S. poor, he says, but have had the ambition, the educational values and so on to do well, if not in the first generation then surely the second.  In the words of a stuck-up rich British character one often sees in movies, Clark is saying that we’re bringing in “the wrong kind” of people.  He seems to be hinting that the nation should think more carefully on the topic of unauthorized immigration.

I don’t like Clark’s message.  It’s not that I am denying the validity of Clark’s numbers.  On the contrary, a few years ago, a prominent liberal writer who has worked professionally in the Latino community startled me by telling me of a similar statistical analysis he’d done.

But what Clark is missing, I believe, is that Latino upward mobility could be greatly improved if the schools devoted resources to it.  The irony is that that is not going to happen, precisely because of the larger-than-manageable level of immigration that we have, both legal and unauthorized.  As many studies have shown, the first victims of too large an influx are the most vulnerable people in our society, many of them earlier immigrants.  It’s a shame that Emma Lazarus poem on our Statue of Liberty says famously, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses,” but sadly it doesn’t promise to give those huddled masses a fighting chance after they get here.