“Keep ‘Em Here” Logic Backfires?

Supporters of expanding the H-1B visa program frequently exclaim, “It makes no sense to train foreign students in our universities but then send them home after graduation, to work for our competitors.” President Obama has said this numerous times.

The claim is not true to begin with. Foreign STEM students can work in the U.S. for 2.5 years under the OPT program, which the Obama people are well aware of, since they are trying to extend that 2.5 years to 6.

But there is more to it than that, because giving the foreign students green cards and thus later enabling their naturalization doesn’t mean that they’ll stay here. On the contrary, they may indeed “go back home to work for our competitors” — taking with them U.S. industrial or government secrets that they’ve acquired in the U.S. in the years since graduation.

Professor Rongxing Li of Ohio State University is now suspected by the FBI of doing exactly that. A naturalized citizen originally from China, Li suddenly resigned his OSU position and returned to China, whereabouts unknown, according to reports. Though I would suggest some skepticism about the accuracy of these early reports, things look pretty grim at this point.

Several times a year, cases of alleged espionage by Chinese foreign students and immigrants hit the news, and in many instances, the accused have eventually pleaded guilty. But in spite of the many such news articles sent to me by readers of this blog, I usually don’t discuss them, a rare exception being a post I made in May.

However, this case is different, because Dr. Li can legitimately be described as in the “best and brightest” category. He held a prestigious endowed chair at OSU; he was editor-in-chief of a prominent academic journal; he was a fellow (a major honor) of a national research society; and most importantly for the present context, has been selected to head a large project for NASA.

If it turns out that Li has indeed been up to no good, his case will be an excellent example of the folly of the “Don’t send them home to work for our competitors” rallying cry by the pro-H-1B crowd.

It should also be mentioned that most of Li’s research coathors, presumably large made up of his graduate students at OSU, appear to be from China.

Intel Not Interested in Science Contest

Some readers are probably reading my post title above and thinking that my point is, “Look how hypocritical Intel is, claiming a STEM shortage but not supporting U.S. high school science!” But actually, the full title is, “Intel Not Interested in Science Contest — and Neither Am I.”

Actually, I wrote a Bloomberg op-ed on this topic a couple of years ago. A short summary would be “The Intel contest is not what you think it is, and in fact it is largely a gaming of the system by well-connected kids and their parents.” My guess is that Intel finally realized this too, and decided to pull out. I applaud that decision.

By the way, around 2013 I wrote 6 or 7 Bloomberg op-ed pieces, many at their invitation. The above link, http://www.bloombergview.com/contributors/norman-matloff used to show the complete collection, but now only the piece on the Intel science contest remains. Since many of the articles concerned H-1B, on which my views are antithetical to those of Bloomberg, the possibility of censorship suggests itself. Maybe so, maybe not, but in any case, I am grateful to my editor, Katy Roberts, for running the pieces and indeed asking me to write many of them.

The Welcome Mat May Be Pulled Out from Under Them

After running as a prominent print magazine for many decades, U.S. News and World Report now serves niche markets, online and otherwise. One of those niches involves education, with the publication not only compiling its famous (and not entirely useless) yearly college rankings report, but also running short conferences on how to deal with alleged STEM shortages.

A September 9 article, “50,000 Foreign-Born STEM Workers May Be Forced Home,” is the first of many “poster children” pieces we will likely see in the media in the coming months. A recent court decision found that the 2008 executive branch action extending the Optional Practical Training part of the F-1 student visa had not been put through the legally required procedures to seek public comment. The judge gave the government until next February to perform a do-over.

The message of the US News article is that, due to some silly judge, the U.S. will lose tens of thousands of talented foreign students. “The deadline is looming,” ominously intones the article. As some of you may recall, the statistical evidence suggests that those students tend not to be so talented after all, but really the salient point is that there is no way this doomsday will occur. The USCIS will pull out all the stops to avoid it, and indeed, I’ve seen immigration lawyers quoted as saying that the court decision will spur the government on to accelerate its planned FURTHER extension of OPT to 6 years.

Meanwhile, a White House petition to retain OPT now has over 100,000 signatures. While it is clear that most signers are foreign students or others with vested interests, the government will treat the petition as “broad public support.” This could be quite embarrassing (if the mainstream media — or Donald Trump 🙂 — gave it good coverage), as the above Computerworld article points out:

The technology workers’ local believes that the OPT program brings in low-wage workers, creating unfair competition. Miano said the OPT action creates a hot political issue for the Obama administration. The administration didn’t act to protect U.S. workers at Southern California Edison and Disney, but “now that foreign workers will be losing their jobs, how would it look if Obama went into overdrive to protect their jobs?”

As usual, the government response to such a charge would be that “foreign students create jobs, not steal them,” the standard “Intels good, Infosyses bad” argument, which sadly many people find convincing.

As with many such articles, the US News piece quotes a couple of employers as claiming they just can’t find qualified Americans to fill their jobs. Yet a glance at their Web pages shows their current openings to be quite run-of-the-mill. They may have to offer higher pay, horror of horrors, but they could get good workers domestically if they wanted to.

Well, why don’t they want to? The first, and more obvious reason is to save money, and not just because OPT workers are not subject to Social Security tax. Students are young, thus cheap to hire, and due to the fact that the green card serves as compensation, YES, they will work for less even aside from the age issue. Attorney Whitehill’s claim in the article is absurd; even at cut-rate wages, the students are making much more money here than they would back home, not to mention getting an extremely valuable green card in the process.

The second reason is that the foreign students, if they are being sponsored for green cards, are de facto indentured servants, which is of huge appeal to employers.

Not that I don’t sympathize with the foreign students. I had an extremely talented student from China a year ago, whom I strongly encouraged a Silicon Valley employer to hire. The student was indeed hired, but lost the H-1B visa lottery. OPT will basically give him one more shot at that prize, but without the planned extension, that will be the end.

Yet that misses the point entirely. If, as was the intent of the old H-1 program, H-1B visas were given only to “the best and the brightest,” my former student wouldn’t have to worry, as the H-1B cap would never come even close to filling up. And Americans wouldn’t have to worry either. Win-win, as they say. Unfortunately, those various parties who would lose are calling the shots.

No Surprise — Infosys Cleared of Wrongdoing in SCE Case

Earlier this year, Southern California Edison and Disney made headlines by firing some American IT workers and replacing them by holders of the H-1B work visa. The latter workers were supplied by Indian IT services firms, which are basically in the rent-a-programmer business. SCE and Disney forced the Americans to train their foreign replacements.

At the time, a group of outraged senators sent an open letter to the Dept. of Labor, asking DOL to investigate, but I wrote a blog posting to point out that the actions of SCE, Disney, Infosys etc. are perfectly legal. Today, Infosys announced that it had indeed been given a clean bill of health in the DOL investigation.

I suspect that the senators who authored letter to DOL knew that the various employers had acted legally. If they did, then why did the senators ask for the investigation? Seems it was just for publicity.

I know a lot of programmers and engineers had pinned their hopes on the DOL investigation (in spite of my stating that it was pointless). I urge them to push for general H-1B reform, not just regarding the IT services firms, and not just regarding the issue of replacement of Americans by foreign workers. And also not just on the $60,000 wage floor for H-1B-dependent employers. I would also urge them to pay close attention to the currently active lawsuit on the Optional Practical Training part of the F-1 foreign student visa, which is the type of foreign worker that firms like SCE and Disney will turn to if Congress enacts legislation targeting the IT services firms.

As I’ve often said: If critics of H-1B just concentrate on the word replace and the number 60000, they’ll find that Congress limits reform to just those two aspects (and only cosmetically even there), and use it as an excuse the EXPAND the H-1B and green card programs. The result will be a situation even worse than before.

The Immigrant Welfare Debate Is Back

The political climate involving immigration in the mid-1990s was starkly different from what we see today, with one of the big issues being welfare usage. The issue died down in 1996 for reasons I’ll analyze below, but with the Center for Immigration Studies’ release last week of a new study, the controversy has returned, with counteranalyses by supporters of high-level immigration, and a CIS rejoinder.

I’ll have some comments in the CIS study later in this post, but first want to discuss the history, to put all this in context.

During the 90s I did extensive research on one aspect of immigration welfare use, public assistance usage by elderly immigrants, including Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI). Though SSI’s name sounds like “social security” and it is indeed run by the Social Security Administration, it is in fact welfare, the means-tested public assistance program for our aged poor.

SSI was intended, as its name implies, as a supplement for older Americans who somehow did not have sufficient resources to live on. But immigrant community groups, responding to encouragement of the federal government, started widely promoting the program among elderly immigrants in the early 1990s. The old folks were immigrating to the U.S. after retirement age, and thus were ineligible for Social Security and Medicare, having never worked in the U.S.

The response in some immigrant communities was overwhelming. Now it was feasible to bring over Grandpa and Grandma to the U.S., with the advance intention of putting them on welfare, including by the way not just SSI and Medicaid but also subsidized housing for the poor and so on. Stanford Professor Tom MaCurdy, on whom I’ll say more below, remarked that he was shocked when one of his grad students told him that her Indian parents were coming to the U.S. to avail themselves of a “pension,” which turned out to be SSI.

Recently Jeb Bush made some poorly-phrased remarks on Asian “anchor babies.” What he said was absolutely correct, but unfortunately he phrased it in an us-(Latinos)-versus-them manner that made me wince. In that light, rhough, I reluctantly note that the top immigrant SSI user groups per capita as of the 1990s were the Chinese and Koreans. Nationwide, the Chinese and Korean rates were 47% and 50%, while the next-closest group was the Filipinos at 39%. Donald Trump may be surprised that the Mexican rate was only 21% (though it would not surprise Jeb Bush, because a social worker explained to me that Latinos pride in taking care of their seniors themselves).

Picture the Chinese and Koreans taking the legendary energy they use in academics and business, and now applying that energy to promoting welfare usage by the old folks, and then you’ll understand the enormous drive to get immigrants to sign up for SSI. The Chinese community organizations, such as Self Help for the Elderly (yes, an ironic name) in San Francisco, the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles and the City Hall Senior Center in New York’s Chinatown, pulled out all the stops in promoting SSI, Medicaid and subsidized senior housing (including campaigning for the building of such housing). Chinese-language public service TV programs, such as on Channel 26 KTSF of the Bay Area, would regularly dispense advice on how to obtain these benefits, and the World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the U.S., ran a weekly Dear Abby-style advice column on obtaining welfare.

Large numbers of the recipients of assistance arguably didn’t need it. A typical scenario in the Bay Area at the time (and still largely true today) involved a senior on SSI, living with his son and daughter-in-law, both Silicon Valley engineers from China or Taiwan. The son would have applied for the parent for immigration, promising the keep the parent off welfare for 5 years (increased from 3 years by the 1993 legislation), but would have planned ahead of time to put the parent on welfare after that. All perfectly legal, mind you. Statistical and qualitative details are available in my 1996 Senate testimony.

The non-native usage of SSI skyrocketed, and this attracted the attention of Congress, which began a series of reforms. Though these reforms are viewed today as coming from the Republicans, they actually were bipartisan. The first came in 1993, when the Democrats held both houses of Congress, as well as the presidency. And though the 1996 legislation was initiated by the Republicans, who then controlled Congress, the Democrats offered a similar, if somewhat less draconian, bill and of course President Bill Clinton signed the Republican version that passed.

The bipartisan nature of the agreement on the welfare issue at the time is hard to imagine today. Democrat Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York and widely viewed as a future presidential candidate, said

[Immigrants] are part of our strength.  They will be a nourishment for our future…They are also expensive [in terms of use of government services],

Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, then a California state senator, also supported clamping down on immigrant welfare use, specifically regarding the sponsors not supporting their family members as promised. After having been helped into Congress by some influential Asian fundraisers, Honda has had a very different stance ever since.

On the more general issue of immigration, the 1995 Jordan Commission, headed by a prominent liberal member of the House (with Vice Chair Michael Teitelbaum, known to some readers here), recommended major reforms in order to reduce the problem of “chain migration” —  immigrant X brings in his brother Y and Mrs. Y, then Y brings in her sister Z, whose husband later brings in his elderly mother, etc. Among others things, the commission recommended eliminating the Fourth Preference category, under which adult naturalized citizens can petition for the immigration of their adult siblings. In 1996 President Clinton was ready to support these recommendations, and the immigration reform groups were elated. The head of one such group even wondered if his organization would have anything left to do after the reform would be enacted.

Yet attempts to eliminate the Fourth Preference, going back to the 1980s (when it was the Fifth Preference) had been repeatedly defeated by the Chinatown immigrant advocacy groups. For these activists, it was literally the case that their jobs would be on the line if the Fourth Preference were to be eliminated, or access to SSI rescinded. Yvonne Lee, a Chinese activist considered to be the community’s pipeline to the White House (and appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission by Clinton), stated in an interview on KTSF in 1995 that if restrictions were placed on subsidized housing, “Our Chinatown will have a big problem [of underpopulation].” Lee later told AsianWeek in 1997,

…[given the new restrictions against welfare use by future immigrants] how many people are going to take the risk of sponsoring someone [for immigration] and what long-term impact will that have on our social status and political empowerment?

So the activists redoubled their efforts. The Urban Institute got involved on their side (the Chinese organizations were a paid client, if I recall right). Much more important, some ethnic Chinese with monetary clout started making big donations to the Democrats. Some of the donations were actually illegal, resulting in scandal, but my point here is that the efforts, both legal and otherwise, convinced Clinton to change his mind about immigration. The Fourth Preference remains in place today, and though it now takes longer to be eligible for SSI, the immigrant seniors and their adult sons and daughters are willing to wait for it. Chinatowns are not underpopulated.

Under the 1996 welfare reform act, an immigrant must naturalize in order to qualify for SSI — and that is exactly what they did, upon enactment of the statute. A study found that “The national origin groups most likely to receive public assistance in the pre-[legislation] period experienced the largest increases in naturalization rates after 1996.” In the Bay Area, a household in which both husband and wife are high-salary immigrant Silicon Valley engineers, but who have their elderly parents on SSI, is still the norm.

Even I, who see instances of this all the time, was taken aback a couple of weeks ago when I was in a public library in the East Bay City of Fremont, a Chinese and Indian stronghold. In the couple of hours I was there, several times a librarian got onto the public address system to announce that that day a government specialist in SSI would be coming to answer questions from seniors and their families.

Now turning to the CIS report, the critics’ highlighted argument is that CIS was wrong to tabulate at the household level. But at the CIS report author Steve Camarota points out, this is absolutely standard, and makes sense for the reasons cited. In addition to the examples given, the household approach was used by the Urban Institute people, who were supporting the Chinese. In fact, the pro-immigration Stanford professor Tom MaCurdy, writing for the pro-immigration think tank PPIC, recommended that eligibility for SSI be made on the household level.

Camarota also refutes the scenario offered by CIS’ critics, in which a family is headed by an immigrant but in which the kids are citizens. The critics say welfare usage by the kids shouldn’t be counted as “immigrant welfare.” But Camarota points out that the householder is the breadwinner, and if his failure to support the kids results in their using welfare, it should indeed be counted in the immigrant column. I would add that the same holds for the SSI setting: The U.S. citizen brought his parents here, knowing that they would not be able to support themselves, and would eventually go on welfare. So, if the parents are living in this household, it too should count in the immigrant column, even though the householder is a citizen.

CIS’ critics claim that the immigrants who use welfare are not doing anything out of line, as they are poor, and poor people sometimes use welfare. I largely agree with that, but there is much more to it than that.

They are often not so poor after all. In the case of SSI, my illustrations above, and the corresponding data in my Senate testimony, show that it often happens that there are welfare recipients in households headed by the well-educated. MaCurdy’s study found similarly that a large portion of the immigrant SSI recipients live in above-average income households.

In addition, there is the issue of sponsors, especially in the case of immigration of the elderly. When someone immigrates past retirement age, it is obvious that they almost certainly will need to use welfare, in SSI, Medicaid and so on. The sponsor’s legal responsibility should be permanent, but unfortunately it is not.

My personal view has always been that our immigration policy should welcome a broad socioeconomic range of immigrants, and if some may need occasional welfare assistance, they should not be barred from it (except if they have family sponsors). But these costs should be factored in a national discussion on immigration policy — if we were ever to have one.