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.