In the math world, i2 = -1, but in the Senate i2 = ∞.
If you don’t get the math pun here, don’t worry. It’s just my way of leading in to the I-Squared Act, introduced in the Senate today. The measure would in essence allow an unlimited number of H-1Bs, in that it would remove the cap, currently 20,000 per year, on the special H-1B category for foreign students earning graduate STEM degrees at U.S. universities. (I’ll call this the “Master’s Category” for reasons to be explained shortly.) It also would allow a tripling of the ordinary H-1B category, as well as do all kinds of other damage. But trust me, the numerically most harmful provision would ultimately be that newly-infinite Master’s Category.
Sadly, this is directly related to a topic that I’ve discussed often — the notion that the H-1Bs hired from U.S. schools are the “good” H-1Bs, while those hired directly from India by the bodyshops are the “bad” H-1Bs, a claim I strongly dispute. This is why the Master’s Category was created in the first place, and now the bill’s authors are capitalizing on all the publicity that supports the Good H-1Bs, Bad H-1Bs concept. I’ve argued in my blog (see above link) that this publicity is actually counterproductive; by giving the impression that the problem is largely limited to the bodyshop sector, this publicity hides the fact that the problem pervades the entire industry.
So, you ask, what’s wrong with giving visas to those with graduate degrees? Aren’t they more qualified? If not enough Americans pursue graduate study, isn’t it justified to fill this “gap” with foreign workers? The answer is very simple: NO. Explaining this point will be my focus here.
First, let’s keep in mind that some of the most successful people in the computer field didn’t even have a Bachelor’s degree: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison (Oracle), Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Andreeson (developer of the first widely-used graphical Web browser) etc. Others had degrees but not in computer science such as Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft Director of Research, and Tim Berners, inventor of the World Wide Web.
Next, though the industry likes to claim they hire H-1Bs because not enough Americans earn a PhD, that is a falsehood. While it’s true that more than 50% of computer science degrees in the U.S. go to foreign students (itself a consequence of H-1B, as a National Science Foundation report correctly predicted way back in 1989), that is NOT the main reason they are hiring H-1Bs; the vast majority of H-1Bs hired by the tech industry, including by the big-name firms, do NOT have doctorates. Data is hard to come by on this, but as of 2000, only 1.6% of the H-1Bs in computer-related fields had a PhD (in any field). More recent comments to me by an Intel official, for example, show the percentage is still low today.
One can argue whether having a doctorate in computer science is a big thing or not (I would argue mainly not), but the point is that it is irrelevant. At least in the case of CS, in the special 20,000-visa H-1B category, we are talking about Master’s students. Hence my term, the Master’s Category.
You may ask, “Aren’t workers with Master’s degree holders better, more qualified?” My firm answer is NO.
For example, consider the UC and CSU systems in California. The CSU campuses have some excellent faculty — I know some personally, and highly respect them — but the fact is that the average quality of the students is lower at CSU. Moreover, to be frank, the Master’s courses at CSU schools tend to be of the same quality as Bachelor’s level courses at the UCs. In other words, for a foreign Master’s holder from CSU, the claimed “higher quality” due to having the Master’s is an illusion.
Nationwide, I believe that most of the students in the Master’s Category are at lower-tier schools such as the CSUs, including private institutions. While I don’t have complete data on this, I believe the following help may make the point clear:
- At CSU East Bay, 90% of the Master’s students in computer science were foreign, even BEFORE the school’s controversial decision to admit ONLY foreign students.
- SJSU has one of the highest percentages of foreign Master’s students in the nation.
- On the PhD level, the average quality of the U.S. institutions attended by the foreign students is lower than that for the Americans, both in CS and in the sciences.
In addition, my EPI paper showed that the average quality of the foreign grad students in CS is lower in terms of patenting rates, participation in R&D, and as mentioned, selectivity of graduate institution.
In other words, folks, the claim that the Master’s Category H-1Bs are of higher quality is simply false.
And that flatly contradicts the claims made by the authors of the bill, such as:
- “The bill focuses on areas vital to ensuring the United States can maintain its competitiveness in the global economy…”
- “America must be a country that makes things again, that invents things, that exports to the world, and to do that we need the world’s talent.”
- “Our immigration system needs to be modernized to be more welcoming of highly skilled immigrants and the enormous contributions they can make to our economy and society.”
- “…it’s important that we take steps to ensure that the world’s best and brightest do their work here in the United States.”
Really? The foreign students at CSU are “the world’s best and brightest”? They can “make enormous contributions” even if their Master’s degrees are actually more like Bachelor’s degrees? Listen, I’d the first one to say that any institution has a few extraordinarily talented students, but the percentage is low; the vast majority of the CSU students are mediocre.
The reader should not infer that I’m in favor of giving all the foreign STEM grad students at UCs visas either. They’re nice people for whom I wish the best, but in general they are no better than the Americans. I really do believe H-1Bs should primarily be for the best and the brightest.
And by the way, the bill fails to deliver on another claim made in the above press release: “[the bill would help employers hire immigrants] while making reforms to protect [US.] workers.” I’ve read both the summary and full text of the bill, and there is NOTHING there about U.S. worker protections.
Worst bill I’ve seen in the H-1B field.