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.

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12 thoughts on “Where I Stand on the H-1B Work Visa

  1. Norm: You may wish to add some comments about OPT program. You probably know that there are tax breaks associated with OPT training. Thus, not only are the advantages of “serfdom” present, but there are tax advantages as well. This is also true with the J-1, where employers do not pay SS, medicare, or unemployment taxes.

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  2. This article, and your “educational quotes” in the last paragraph should be required reading for all journalists covering the U.S. work visa issue. However, I believe that one of the problems is the control that economic elites exert over any criticisms of their “sacred cow” – the U.S. work visa program. I’m sure that there were times that you insured that a journalist quoted you accurately but when the interview was released, your relevant quotes were omitted by the elites. :-<

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      • Here’s an example: I lived in Arlington, VA, adjacent to Washington, DC, from late 2007 through the middle of 2011. Typically, the Washington Post (WaPo) only publishes letters to the editor (LTEs) from residents of the Washington, DC area. During that period, I submitted a LTE that was critical of the H-1B Visa program. It had been approved by the LTE editor. I had approved the minor WaPo edits. A few days later, when the LTE had not appeared, I contacted the LTE editor and asked why my LTE had not appeared. The editor informed me that a “very senior” WaPo manager had requested that my LTE not run. (I believe that Melinda French Gates was still on the WaPo Corporation Board at the time. Her husband is the “World’s Wealthiest Man” – Bill Gates, a staunch H-1B Visa program advocate.)

        Recall also the Sonoma State University “Project Censored.” Their number 10 story for 2001 was “Silicon Valley Uses Immigrant Engineers to Keep Salaries Low.” Searching the ProjectCensored dot org website using the variant spellings H1B and H1-B reveals entries from other years. The most recent is from 2012.

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  3. Having a definitive source of one’s positions seems like a good idea to combat bad journalism or even anti-journalism, where those in the news industry don’t intend to report truthfully. It could make it difficult to have an excuse for such reporting. If more people regularly quoted by the news media had such position web pages, with some standardization for finding them easily on the web, readers could easily discover mis-reporting and perhaps help to counteract the pernicious effect that it has on the ability of the country to have a open and honest debate on policy in general and especially immigration

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  4. First, I work for a global Fortune 100 company whose stock has been growing very rapidly, rated by all analysts as a “buy”, not some small mom-and-pop shop.

    Immediately after a co-worker of mine left this company, management decided to replace him with an H1-B supplied by our offshore/onshore company. They just told the offshore/onshore company what they wanted, ordering the new person almost like you’d order a pizza. He moved here from Charlotte North Carolina where he’d been working for one of the banks headquartered there in less than a week. His company paid a hotel bill for two weeks and then moved him in with others from their company at a cheap rental unit.

    I was told he was an Oracle/Unix guru with other database experience, but we don’t need that. He had none of the skills we need, so I started training him on the fly. I found out that what we were doing was illegal according to H1-B (they’re supposed to come with significant skills). I asked why we couldn’t have looked for a local contractor (we do hire local contractors for many positions and we’re in a major metropolitan area with several universities and a high unemployment rate in the area nearest us).

    I was simply told that the H1-B guy was cheaper than a local contractor would be.

    I started making noise about the fact that he didn’t have the skills we needed, that I was training him, and the higher manager then simply announced to everyone that the new guy was my equal at everything. Then he started delegating work directly to the new guy and pretended to be training him himself. Meanwhile I was being strongly pressed to “be a team worker.”

    The new guy panics very frequently because he does not know what to do for many assignments; he panics and “begs” me to help. If I don’t I’m not a good teamworker. When I was training him I could plan what to train him when. Now I’m called in unexpectedly for his emergencies and panic attacks.

    Oh, by the way, I’m in my 60’s and the new guy is in his early 30’s. No one ever says I haven’t kept up with technology; the last project manager described me to the new project manager as “A walking brain. Mary knows everything about everything.”

    This is what our world has come to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is an accurate description of a set of destructive employer practices. The goal is short-term cost avoidance built on the fallacy that knowledge workers are “interchangeable parts.” (Of course practices such as kickbacks to senior managers abet the expansion of such processes.) All of America’s knowledge workers are the targets.

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