An alert reader pointed me to an appearance by Professor Ron Hira on the Laura Ingraham radio show yesterday. Ingraham had asked him to respond to remarks presidential candidate and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina had made on the show on September 23, where Fiorina had said “Shame on them” when Ingraham brought up Disney and SCE’s replacement of American ITers by H-1Bs. Yesterday Ingraham wondered whether Fiorina had been a bit hypocritical, and Hira’s answer was a likely Yes.
Ron’s explanations were excellent as usual, very insightful. The gist of what he said was that not only had HP embraced hiring H-1Bs and offshoring tech work during Fiorina’s tenure as CEO, the firm actually had earlier been in the vanguard of the use of foreign tech labor. Indeed, I would add that HP was the focus of a 60 Minutes expose’ of H-1B back in 1993; see for example the section titled “Media Reports of Abuse” in a House report in 2000.
So, is Fiorina a hypocrite? I will argue here that she is not. Instead, I would point to her remarks as yet another instance of the harmful emphasis on the word replace these days (as in “replacing Americans by H-1Bs) in discussions of foreign tech workers.
I might be a little biased here, as I was quite impressed with Fiorina during the recent Republican debate. I’m a Democrat myself, but I felt that among all those on the panel, she was by far the most intelligent, knowledgeable and sincere. But I would suggest that the distorting effect of the H-1B debate’s focus on the Disney and SCE cases these days may absolve Fiorina of guilt in her remarks on the show.
I harp on this issue so much that I hardly need review it, but for completeness, here is a summary. The Disney and SCE cases make for good press for critics of H-1B, due to the dramatic nature of H-1Bs being used to replace Americans. The mainstream tech firms such as HP don’t generally engage in direct replacement like this, hence the perception that the Intels are the Good Guys while the Infosyses (one of the major brokers of replacement actions) are the Bad Guys. But the fact is that the mainstream firms are just as culpable, as the hire H-1Bs instead of Americans, rather than to replace Americans. Either way, Americans don’t have those jobs, so it shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately, the hire-instead-of actions just aren’t visible. The vocal H-1B opponent Virgil Bierschwale, a victim of instead-of rather than the replaced-by, is a case in point, and is quite typical, based on my 20+ years of watching this issue,
I don’t mean that Fiorina was playing word games here, sneakily exploiting the specific term replace. On the contrary, I think she sincerely believes that HP’s hiring of H-1Bs, mainly foreign students at U.S. universities, was a legitimate remedy to a shortage of Master’s degree-level (not PhDs, by the way) American engineers. Actually, there was and is no shortage, but I can easily see Fiorina, as a CEO far removed from the shop floor, did mistakenly believe it. To her, “Intels good, Infosyses bad” becomes “HPs yes, HCLs no.” And as I sadly pointed out, Donald Trump, for all his bluster on H-1B, turned out to have the same misguided view. (Trump was the target of a classic zinger by Fiorina; see this article, one of the few accounts that correctly explained it.) And if you view me as naive for saying this, note that over the years, whenever I have mentioned HP in the H-1B context, I hear from readers who strongly oppose the H-1B program but who staunchly defend HP, insisting that the company cleaned up its act after that 1993 60 Minutes piece ran.
My constant mention of the “Intels good, Infosyses bad” misperception sometimes annoys some critics of H-1B, but the perniciious effects of that misperception are everywhere. Take the recent scandal involving hiring of H-1Bs by Wright State University as a backdoor way for a non-university firm to hire foreign workers on the cheap — and without worrying about the H-1B cap. Why did Congress exempt academia from the cap? Well, sir, same answer — the misperception that the H-1Bs hired from U.S. university campuses are the “good” H-1Bs.
I have warned that this thinking will ultimately have very tangible, adverse impacts on American STEM workers: In “reforming” H-1B, Congress will impose a mild punishment on the Infosyses, while actually rewarding the Intels with an INCREASE in the H-1B cap and/or an expanded green card program. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) Bill, passed by the Senate in the last Congress, did exactly this.
That bill failed in the House, for a reason we are all aware of: The increase in H-1B was coupled with amnesty for the unauthorized immigrants. That coupling created a deadlock that has continued to this day. Democrats in Congress see those immigrants as, in Jay Leno’s clever line, “undocumented Democrats,” while many Republicans fear the same.
But maybe not anymore, now that House Speaker Boehner has resigned and seems to be slated to be succeeded by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California’s Central Valley. Today’s newspaper headlines here in the Bay Area present a Speaker McCarthy as “good for California,” but the more likely effect is that he would be good for Latino farmworkers and the white and Japanese growers in his district. McCarthy’s stance on immigration is much more positive than those of many of his fellow GOPers, and he has been quite outspoken about it.
So, we may actually finally see a loosening of the disgraceful logjam that has been the rule on immigration legislation in Congress in recent years. In this scenario, there may be enactment of a scaled-down version of CIR. If so, it is safe bet that its provisions on tech immigration will again focus on clamping down a bit on the Infosyses, while expanding the Intels’ ability to hire foreign workers. Will this be good for U.S. citizens and permanent residents in STEM fields? HCL, no.