Calling All High-GPA Ivy Leaguers?

After being caught flatfooted on the H-1B issue in Thursday’s debate, Donald Trump gave a firm, reasonable answer to a question on the matter at his rally in Reno: If a foreign student graduates first in his class at Harvard or Princeton, then we should grant him a work visa or green card, but not the ordinary students at ordinary schools. This certainly jibes with my views (though the question then is where to draw the line; see below).

The problem, of course, is that the tech industry wants to facilitate the immigration of not only the strongest students at Harvard, but also mediocre students at, say, Wright State University (site of the recent H-1B scandals).

The industry has such a positive image that one would think that they want to hire the brightest possible workers they can find, but in reality most of their jobs involve ordinary work — which they deem best filled by ordinary people. (An exception is Google, where you’ll find many really sharp people working on really mundane tasks.)

I’ve mentioned before the American student with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton then a master’s from Cornell, who right after graduating from the latter, was rejected three times from Texas Instruments. When I told this story to a TI recruiter, she frankly told me that TI doesn’t want to hire exceptionally bright people, presumably fearing they’ll be prima donas. So, ordinary is good, and cheap ordinary even better, hence the popularity of the H-1B program among employers.

I’ve mentioned before my research, which also cites that of others, that shows on average the foreign students are of somewhat weaker talent than their American peers. And even Vivek Wadhwa’s 2006 survey found that employers stated that, compared to the foreign engineers, the “U.S. engineers were more creative, excelled in problem solving, risk taking, networking and had strong analytical skills.”

Once again, our current policy is displacing, directly and indirectly, American workers with higher talent and hiring instead foreign workers of lower talent. This is a net loss to our economy, our ability to maintain world leadership in tech, and so on. I can’t understand why this doesn’t alarm people, even those who are critical of H-1B.

But as I’ve said so often, some foreign students really are of outstanding talent. Suppose Congress and the tech industry really wanted a policy that targeted this group. How could this be done?

Many years ago, maybe 1996, a staffer for Senator Simpson actually tried to draft legislation based on the idea of grabbing the foreign students from America’s most elite schools. His plan was to look at the rankings of the schools, and then draw the line somewhere near the top. You can see why this wouldn’t work, due to “list creep,” brought on in response to relentless pressure from the industry and academia; the line would be gradually lowered, first a little at a time, and finally opening the gates to just about anyone. In 2011, a group of us researchers were told by a high-level Obama official that Zoe Lofgren’s “staple a green card to their diplomas” plan would apply only to the top dozen schools, but later it became over 100 and possibly over 200.

And speaking of Simpson, one of my favorite quotes of him says it all: “I was working with the business community…to address their concerns [about H-1B], [but] each time we resolved one, they became more creative, more novel.” In other words, they were not working in good faith at all, and they would keep pushing a President Trump to lower the bar “just a bit.” Would he be able to resist?

The most practical proposal for taking only “the best and the brightest” programmers and engineers has been to rank by offered salary. All the applications for visas would be thus ranked, and visas doled out until the cap is reached. It’s a very crisp, clean solution, originally proposed by a union yet something that the free market worshipers could relate to. But as should be clear from above, this is not something of interest to employers, and the proposal never really got serious attention. Rep. Lofgren did put the provision into one of her bills to apply to H-1B, but the bill also included “staple a green card,” with NO such provision. So the top talents would come in through the front door, but the back door would be open for everyone else.

Alas, a President Trump, or for that matter a President Sanders, would do well to consult with Alan Simpson — a renegade, just like them — on this issue.

Trump’s NON-Reversal in Last Night’s Debate (and Rubio’s)

Lots of comment in blogs and e-mail today about Trump’s seemingly reversing himself on the H-1B issue in last night’s Republican presidential primary debate. But he didn’t really reverse himself, because he had already done so back in August. After posting the best platform on H-1B I’d ever seen by a major presidential candidate, Trump backpedaled the very next day, saying that he hadn’t been referring to the H-1Bs hired from among foreign students at U.S. universities. It is this group of H-1Bs that are hired by the Intels and Googles, which Trump was alluding to last night in statements such as “I am all in favor of keeping these talented people here so they can go to work in Silicon Valley.”

I stated at the time that Trump’s sudden reversal then was apparently due to the fact that “Someone got to him.” Given that last night Trump referred to Mark Zuckerberg, who has been outspoken in support of liberalized policies on H-1B and immigration in general (and of whom Trump had been critical), as “Mark,” we see that the one who “got to him” may have in fact been “Mark.”

I certainly don’t mean to defend Trump here, but it’s hard for me to understand why so many of my readers have been contacting me about his supposed “reversal” last night.

Rubio, on the other hand, is perceived has having changed course in the other direction in the debate, towards more caution concerning H-1B, and again that perception is probably sadly naive. Like most politicians (though unlike Trump), any statement Rubio makes on a major issue is the result of deliberate calculation, and on the subject of immigration, Rubio’s calculations are made with the advice of a top expert — prominent immigration attorney Enrique Gonzalez. H-1B law is byzantine, and it is easy to come up with reforms that are (by design) just as loophole-laden as the present H-1B/green card statutes, but look good to the public.

First, Rubio stated last night that employers found guilty of violating H-1B law should be permanently banned from the program. This is a favorite ruse of the industry PR people, obfuscating the issue by implying that the problem of H-1B abuse is mainly one of lack of enforcement of the law — rather than the gaping loopholes in the law itself. He also obfuscates the discussion by claiming a need for training, implying that we have a tech labor shortage and thus further implying a need for more H-1Bs.

Rubio proposed that employers be required to advertise a job for 180 days before hiring an H-1B to fill the position. Sounds good, but the industry would never allow enactment of such a provision, and there are lots of ways that Rubio could support “reform” while still keeping industry happy. For instance, some years ago there was a provision in which employers in certain sectors with (alleged) labor shortages, notably tech, would be preapproved for hiring foreign workers. This provision could be revived, so that while a180-day rule would be on the books, it would include a huge exception of this type. Other past proposals that could be revived would give automatic approval to employers that had a record of hiring foreign workers without violating the laws; this would dovetail nicely with Rubio’s vows last night to come down harshly on violators, while doing nothing about the current loopholes that allow everyone to abuse the programs scot free.

It’s interesting to see H-1B brought up at all in a presidential debate, a first to my knowledge. This is undoubtedly due to the negative publicity generated by the cases at Disney and SCE, in which Americans were replaced by H-1Bs. But I have warned that such publicity has its downside, which is to draw attention away from the fact that abuse of these programs pervades the entire industry. In particular, I’ve noted that the notion that the H-1Bs hired as foreign students are the “good” H-1Bs will lead to end-runs around the H-1B cap. We are seeing that in the DHS proposal to expand the OPT program, and more perniciously, congressional proposals to give fast-track green cards to foreign students.

This latter point alone would be enough for Rubio to make fingers-crossed-behind-the-back promises to “reform” H-1B — while intending to develop a parallel program that is just as harmful to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

In some ways, I actually am admirer of Rubio, but to borrow my favorite quote from Senator Grassley regarding H-1B, “Nobody should be fooled.” Rubio’s seeming new sympathy for American programmers and engineers should keep in mind this report of a statement of a Rubio staffer in a New Yorker article

“‘There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it,’ a Rubio aide told me. ‘There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.’”

I myself have stated often how important it is to hire GOOD programmers, people who are really sharp. But that comment above is way out of line. I know plenty of very high-quality Americans, especially those over 35, who face real challenges in the labor market, and lose jobs to H-1Bs. Even in the Disney case, it has been reported that the U.S. workers had gotten stellar performance reviews not long before being laid off. If that staffer’s view reflects that of Rubio, his comments about adding worker protections are worthless.

More on the Foreign Student Labor Issue

To no one’s surprise, DHS’s Request for Public Comment on their new proposal regarding OPT is drawing tons of positive comments from foreign students, as a Computerworld article reports. There is also a related article in today’s New York Times.

There isn’t much in the Times article. On the contrary, though balanced in terms of space, the reporter (newly transferred to the immigration beat from the sports desk) seems to buy into the DHS claim that we “must” retain the foreign students — and indeed, attract them here in the first place — come hell or high water. Given my research and that of others regarding the overall lower quality of the foreign students, why the mad rush to grab them? Or better, why is there no push to give H-1B and green card priority to the top foreign students, as befits our national interest?

Ron Hira’s comments in the Computerworld piece are really quite good, deftly exposing DHS’ “internship” idea as a ruse.

DHS Unabashedly Biased in Its New OPT Proposal

The Optional Practical Training (OPT) provision for foreign students in the U.S. is now back in the news.  Under OPT, a foreign student can work in the U.S. for a certain time after graduation. As you may recall, earlier this year a court struck down the federal government’s 2008 expansion of the duration of OPT from 12 to 29 months for STEM students, on the grounds that that decision had not been properly put up for public comment as a proposal. The judge set a deadline for a resubmission of the 2008 proposal for public response. The government had been planning to make a new OPT rule anyway, which would extend OPT duration even further, to 36 months, so they have rushed putting out the new proposal for comment, to comply with the judge’s deadline. The new proposal is now up for comment.

Critics of the proposal have already begun to speak, such as David North of CIS. North, a former U.S. Labor Department official, notes that OPT amounts to the government offering a $10,000 incentive to employers for hiring a foreign student instead of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. This bonus takes the form of the foreign students being exempt from payroll tax (due to their student status, which they technically still have under OPT in spite of having graduated). I would add that if OPT’s duration were to be extended to three full years, as DHS wants, the employer bonanza gets multiplied by 3, so it becomes $30,000 or more. Why hire Americans, eh?

Since this tax exemption from payroll tax was pointed out in the lawsuit against DHS, and has been one of the major points raised by critics, DHS was well aware of it. Yet they are refusing to address it or even acknowledge it. Hard to understaand such blatant pro-employer bias from an administration headed by a former community organizer.

The DHS people do throw in one bone for Americans, in banning employers from replacing U.S. workers by OPTs.  However, as I have stressed often in this blog, the bigger problem with OPTs and foreign workers in general is that employers hire foreign workers instead of Americans, rather than using foreign workers to replace Americans. As I have harped on in this blog, this is yet another example of the downsides to overemphasizing the Disney/SCE cases (where U.S. workers were replaced by foreign ones), as many critics of H-1B are doing.

The DHS then shows further severe bias in its proposal by citing only pro-foreign-worker research (and distorting neutral research; see below), notably that of my UCD colleague Giovanni Peri, an Obama Administration favorite source. Nothing at all from the other side, including my own research showing that the overall quality of the foreign students is low. Since my work was published for EPI, a Democratic Party-oriented think tank, founded in part by Clinton Sec. of Labor Robert Reich, it is further clear that DHS has not looked at this issue with any impartiality whatsoever.

Indeed, DHS grossly misinterprets the work of Prof. Jennifer Hunt of Rutgers. She found in essence that (a) immigrant STEM workers file more patents than native English mjaors and (b) the patenting rate of immigrant STEM workers is less than, or at most equal to, that of native STEM workers. (See my EPI paper for details.) DHS seized upon finding (a), without explaining it for what it is, and  of course, it has no relevance to the issue at hand.

In contrast to DHS’ recent statements, in which they openly admitted that they intend OPT as an end-run around the H-1B cap, they now describe OPT in warm and fuzzy terms of “mentoring” (putting the T back into OPT). That raises several questions:

  • If the U.S. indeed “needs” the foreign students (DHS’s phrasing on this point verges on desperation) to remedy a STEM labor shortage, why do these students need training? The DHS/industry narrative is that the U.S. lacks sufficient workers with STEM training, while the foreign workers are supposedly already trained.
  • And, if workers with such training are indeed needed, why won’t these special mentoring programs be open to Americans? Why just offer them to foreign students?
  • Since DHS admitted that its motivation in OPT is to circumvent the H-1B cap, does that mean that if the cap were high enough to accommodate everyone, these same foreign students wouldn’t need training after all?

Very poor proposal, even by DHS standards. Hopefully the judge in the case will see through it.

SF Chronicle Reaches Out on H-1B

It’s my understanding that one or two readers of this blog complained to the San Francisco Chronicle and/or Beacon Reader after my previous blog post. Whether a result of those complaints or not, yesterday’s announcement in the Chronicle seems to take a fairer, broader point of view, which I’m pleased to see.

As I said in my earlier posts, the Chron has generally pretty good in its coverage of H-1B, and it’s my impression that Beacon Reader wants to do the right thing. However, as I explained, funding issues cannot be ignored, and raise very troubling questions.

Adding Some Nuance to the Wright State Story

Due to some excellent investigative journalism by the Dayton (OH) Daily News, some questionable actions at Wright State University involving the H-1B work visa emerged recently.  See my second blog post on this matter, which links to my previous one.

Now Beryl Lieff Benderly has an interesting article on the WSU fiasco, in Science Careers, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an old and highly prestigious organization. The article is recommended reading not only for its content but also for its source.

However, I do wish to point out that the situation is more nuanced than what has been reported, at least in terms of the university’s dealings with the UES firm. (I don’t know enough about the Web Yoga situation to comment.)

The hirings in question went through WSU’s Applied Research Institute, but the press coverage (including the Benderly piece) gives the impression that the university’s actions were not motivated by research at all. I am fairly sure that that was NOT the case. The university did hire Dr. Ganti with the goal of her doing research, and very importantly, publishing her results under the WSU name. Mind you, the university also appears to have had the goal of making money in the process, by charging UES overhead of $20,000, and yes, the university was probably fully aware of the fact that UES’ motivation was to obtain cheap labor that was not subject to the H-1B cap. In other words, WSU saw this as a “win-win” situation for both itself and UES.

In other words, the university is likely culpable, yes, but in a somewhat more nuanced way than what is being reported. And, as is almost always the case with abuse of the H-1B visa, this was probably all perfectly legal, even if not ethical.

In terms of harm to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, though, the WSU actions, while likely common at universities, are a mere drop in the ocean. The harm that comes from the F-1 foreign student visa is immeasurable, as American employers, especially the Intels and the Googles, hire young new foreign graduates in lieu of older (35+) but equally-qualified Americans. As many of you know, this is a major theme in my writings about foreign STEM workers, and I find it odd that the WSU case can receive so much attention while the far bigger issue gets none.

U.S. Dept. of State Overpromises on Green Cards

As many of you know, the Obama administration, and the Bush one before them, have tried to ease the immigration standoff in Congress by becoming their own mini-Congress, in effect making their own laws via executive order. The best known case involved giving work rights to the spouses of H-1B visa holders.

Recently, the Obama people tried the same approach to ease the long wait for a green card, among employer-sponsored workers. That has now backfired, as reported in this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article. The administration, in an attempt to give the green card waiters more mobility before their immigrant visa comes through, apparently miscalculated. As a result, it first promised lots of people that they would be mobile soon under the new rules, but then reversed their decision. The H-1B advocacy group Immigrant Voice is up in arms.

On the one hand, I can sympathize. I’ve long stated that those waiting for a green card are de facto indentured servants — and that many employers like it that way. But I must say that these foreign workers, in complaining about their woes, seem to have no inkling of the woes they cause many Americans, when employers hire them over equally-qualified Americans. And, as is common among the former foreign students now working in the U.S., we see an unwarranted sense of entitlement.

What is also interesting about the article is that it shows, once again, how the H-1Bs hired as foreign students at U.S. universities are mostly ordinary people doing ordinary work — NOT “the best and the brightest,” as claimed by the industry lobbyists.

The foreign worker highlighted in the lead paragraph, Haifeng Xiao, attended a non-elite university in China, and a non-elite university in the U.S. She is doing work that many Americans could do. As I said, ordinary people doing ordinary work.

The other main profile in the article is Srikanth Peddireddy. He has an MBA from a top school, but his job title is Performance Excellence Manager. Really, are there no qualified Americans available for that position?

So, why did the government reverse itself? One expert I consulted thinks the government simply added up its figures incorrectly. It’s also possible they are afraid of another lawsuit by the American workers. Or, it could just be that the tech industry quietly explained to DOS that it WANTS those workers to be immobile.