David North on Durbin/Grassley

As I stated recently, David North of CIS is one of my top favorite people in DC. He’s sharp, he’s savvy, he has a fantastic background, and above all, he is simply a nice gentleman of the old school.

I thus read with interest David’s recent blog post on the Durbin/Grassley H-1B/L-1 reform bill. Part 2 came out today, with one more part coming. Unfortunately, I’m almost as disappointed with David’s take on the bill as I am with the bill itself. Indeed, I’m disappointed with both because I had high expectations for both.

I’ll focus here on the bill’s provision in Section 104 that would give visa priority to foreign students earning advanced degrees (this means primarily Master’s degrees in practice) in STEM at U.S. colleges and universities. David and I couldn’t disagree more with each other on this issue; I’ve described it as the worst part of the bill, while he regards it as a big plus. (The old programming joke, “Is it a bug or a feature?” applies. 🙂 ) David writes,

The motivation for the proposed distribution scheme [in Section 104 of the bill] is to encourage the payment of higher rather than lower wages…

while I wrote,

I was stunned by a feature in the new bill that prioritizes the doling out of visas. Actually, I have endorsed proposals made by others to prioritize in the order of offered salary, but this new bill doesn’t do that. Instead, it places foreign students as top priority — a blatant gift to the Intels. Workers who really do have a high salary offer (defined as the top of the 4 levels in the current prevailing wage system) would only get second priority. This makes no sense at all, especially in light of documented evidence that the foreign students are of lower average quality than the Americans. Presumably this was a move to make the bill palatable to the industry, but it’s just wrong.

Here I believe that David (of all people) has succumbed to the industry PR machine to portray the foreign students as all being genius grads of MIT. A small percentage are indeed of that caliber, and I’ve often publicly called for measures to facilitate their immigration. But most of the foreign students are not of that quality at all, and in fact are much more typically from, say California State University, East Bay (formerly Cal State Hayward), an example worth expanding upon.

Some of you may remember that CSUH achieved notoriety when its administration decreed that, due to budget problems, the only admissions for graduate programs in the coming semester would be non-residents, technically including non-California Americans but mainly consisting of foreign students. For example, 90% of the graduate computer science students were foreign.

There are some truly excellent students at any school, but CSUH is certainly no MIT. It’s very easy to get into their program (if you’re a foreign student). A courageous CSUH biology professor, Maria Nieto, spoke out:

A number of my colleagues from different departments around our campus have chimed in that the increase of acceptance of foreign students into graduate programs has actually decreased the quality of the students that they are actually seeing in the classroom. We’re taking a lot of students for example that are not prepared, because they can pay. And I really worry about this.

So, NO, the Durbin-Grassley bill is NOT targeting the MIT geniuses. In many cases, it’s exactly the opposite — very weak students, who will get low pay offers, but for whom D/G will roll out the red carpet.

It’s ironic that many of the immigration reform groups, including I believe CIS, have opposed bills to “staple a green card” to the foreign students’ diplomas precisely for the above reason — they would turn the universities into diploma mills. Yet here David is praising the D/G bill’s provision that would do exactly the same thing — and which myriad schools like CSUH are already doing.

California has more than two dozen CSU campuses. Though CSUH is the one that made news, the level of the students at the other CSUs is similar to that of CSUH, with similarly high concentrations of foreign students. Since people are so obsessed with the Southern California Edison and Disney cases, in which Americans were replaced by foreign workers, I pointed this out in my “advice” to employers on maintaining business as usual under Durbin/Grassley:

The Googles and Facebooks will grab the MIT grads, of course, but you’ll have plenty of students left to choose from who are of quality equal to or better than the H-1Bs you currently use from Indian schools. If you are a company like SCE in southern California, for instance, there are no fewer than TEN CSU campuses nearby, and lots more just a day’s drive away, easy to bring in for interviews.

Let me emphasize strongly: It’s not just the CSUs. We also have 9 UC campuses in California, including my own, UC Davis. While some of my foreign students have been outstanding and I have helped get them jobs in Silicon Valley, most are very ordinary. I wrote the other day,

(Part 2 of rant.) It’s also highly frustrating to me to continue to see my foreign students get jobs from the same employers who are rejecting older Americans I know who have the same qualifications, yes, including up-to-date skills. Again, this is what the other researchers and policymakers on H-1B don’t see. I don’t begrudge the foreign students’ success in their job search, and sometimes write good letters of reference for them, but this just ain’t right.

I have to assume that David would agree that no, this just ain’t right. Yet in praising D/G’s giving top priority to foreign students for visas, David is making it even harder for those bypassed Americans to get jobs. His blog post often has the theme that, though the bill isn’t perfect, it’s better than nothing. But no it isn’t, not when it would make things even more difficult for my American friends cited above.

Similarly, D/G would make things HARDER for Americans like Darin Wedel, whose situation I recently reviewed. He’s the one whose wife challenged President Obama on the H-1B issue. I wrote that in all likelihood, Wedel’s applications for jobs to nearby Texas Instruments were rejected in favor of hiring H-1Bs, and these H-1Bs in almost all cases were foreign students. D/G would be disastrous for people like him. TI’s source of H-1Bs is from the pool of foreign students, not from the Infosyses.

Another way the bill’s preference for foreign students would make things even worse than now: Recall that the bill also would add a nominal requirement that H-1B employers giving hiring priority to Americans. I pointed out that the same requirement for green cards has been famously circumventable, but especially for foreign students, due to the Optional Practical Training part of the F-1 foreign student visa: The employer hires the foreign student right out of school under OPT, has the student work for a year or so, and then applies for an H-1B visa for the student. The latter, having acquired experience on the job, is automatically more qualified for the job than the American applicants, who will then be easily rejected by the employer.

In other words, the bill really misses the boat, and arguably makes things even worse than now. How could those hoping for H-1B reform have gone so far wrong?

Again, all this tragic misassessment of D/G stems from the obsession people have had — especially among the immigration reform people — with the “Infosyses,” the rent-a-programmer firms. I had been cautioning against this for years, but the obsession became even more intense after the Infosyses were found to have supplied foreign workers to SCE and Disney.

Since D/G is focused on the Infosyses (which for example is the reason for giving the foreign students priority), it was then only natural for people to treat D/G as manna from heaven. In the CIS press event on the new Malkin/Miano H-1B expose’ book (at which David urged people to short Disney stock), people in the audience applauded loudly when Francis Cissna, one of the bill’s architects, spoke about the bill.

That was a rush to judgment, folks.


13 thoughts on “David North on Durbin/Grassley

  1. I haven’t read the bill myself but from your post, professor, this new bill is *much worse* for the average American programmer than even the existing one.


  2. The difference is that the foreign students resumes from U.S. colleges don’t have five years of experience from imaginary industries in India?


  3. I believe that the “staple a greencard” will have another effect that no one has acknowledged. It will reduce the number of PhD students and post docs.

    One of the fastest ways to get a green card is via EB-1, While a PhD is not a requirement, it is beneficial in meeting the standards applied.

    The same goes for post docs. Many people already holding advanced degrees will simply get a US institution masters and go on so there will be no need for foreign advanced degree holders to work in these research positions. This has a plus in that the research assistant positions will become “real’ jobs and faculty members will actually have to do more work (some programs allow a faculty member to be the principal investigator for only one hour a week of work. This is little more than coffee with the .people doing the actual research work.)

    A masters degree will become the defacto entry level degree requirement for tech jobs. Why hire a BS grad when a foreign MS grad will work for less.

    Universities will reject their own less than A+ grads for people from foreign institutions of unknown quality. Our grads already have large student loan debt while the foreign students are most likely coming in debt free.

    There is the bright spot though. Once someone has a green card, they become expendable and will be in the same status as US born workers ad they age. The older green card recipients from the program will be replaced by new, younger workers. There will be more displaced older workers

    Be careful what you wish for because you may not like the result.


    • I don’t know why you say the negative impact of “staple a green card” on PhD enrollment isn’t acknowleged, Cathy. I’ve agreed with you every time you’ve brought it up, and have been saying so myself for years. Of course, I think think a drop in PhD production would be a bad thing, but my point is that the universities, who have been so positive about bringing in lots of foreign students, will be in a for rude awakening.


      • @matloff November 26, 2015 at 1:48 am: ‘the universities, who have been so positive about bringing in lots of foreign students, will be in a for rude awakening.’

        Yeah, but … not yet 🙂 Part of the badness of the widely-noted corporatization of US universities is that the latter seem increasingly to discount as aggressively as Wall Street[1]. Although to be fair to Big Ed, their “laser-like focus” is on the next academic year, not the next fiscal quarter … yet.

        [1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intertemporal_choice#Hyperbolic_discounting


      • Norm,

        You have but the engineering administrators with whom I have tried to have the discussion ignore the possibility. For a group of supposedly smart people, they sure are dumb.

        Any foreign student who does not take advantage of the opportunity to obtain a green card on the basis of a master’s degree even if employed as a post doc by a university is foolish. As it is international students enroll in additional masters degrees when they are not selected for an H-1B visa in the lottery so this is an even bigger benefit. And many schools will allow them to enroll in classes for free as an employee benefit.

        The legislators in DC don’t seem to consider anything but the immediate effect. Where do they expect all of these new green card holders to work after the new crop receives theirs. No one seems to have a plan to recover from the disaster that will be created.


        • It’s interesting that university administrators you talk to don’t understand this simple fact. I suppose that this is because they have bought into the Kool-Aid that says international students come here because of the high quality of our graduate programs, rather than as steppingstones to U.S. jobs and green cards.

          I agree that many foreign students are using additional Master’s degrees as a holding pattern until they get a job. At my university, this takes the form of a Double Major at the Master’s degree level. Study for a Master’s in field X, and if you don’t get a job right away, declare a Double Major in Y. I don’t blame them at all, but I do blame the system.


    • @Cathy November 25, 2015 at 6:37 pm: ‘faculty members will actually have to do more work (some programs allow a faculty member to be the principal investigator for only one hour a week of work[)]’

      To be fair, your claim only applies if (as you use the term) ‘work’ ⊂ research. The problem with that claim (WRT the PIs I have known–obviously a *very* small sample) is that the vast bulk of their time is spent either fundraising (e.g., preparing grant proposals), or in administrivia associated with spending raised funds. Perhaps it’s just me, but I note an increasing number of listings for TT positions baldly requiring candidates to BYOF (“bring your own funding”).

      Given continuing tight funding, ISTM unlikely PIs will be able to spend less time “making it rain,” even if lab size (i.e., |students + staff|) decreases.

      @Cathy November 25, 2015 at 6:37 pm: ‘A masters degree will become the defacto entry level degree requirement for tech jobs.’

      In some fields, it’s been that way for awhile. My first “tech degree” was an electronics AA, but after a few years I went back to school and got a BSCS. One reason why was that even then (mid-90s) it seemed one needed a master’s to get a “real job” in electronics. (The other was that, as an instrumentation tech, I was enjoying time spent working on/with software lots more than calibrating and soldering 🙂


  4. It seems to me that with the Durbin Grassley visa reform bill every year 85,000 American jobs go to foreigners on H-1B visas and without the Durbin Grassley visa reform bill every year bill 85,000 American jobs go to foreigners on H-1B visas.

    I see two major differences to come from D/G. First, and most important, D/G protects Congress and other supporters from getting another black eye like they have gotten from the incidents at Disney and Southern California Edison. Why those incidents got so much public attention I do not pretend to know but a Senator can only feign shock and call for an investigation so often. Supporters, especially senators running for president or reelection, need cover and Disney et al will just have to suck it up and live without this option. This bill gives them that cover.

    Second, the bill favors American companies getting H-1Bs over foreign companies.

    The posting and “good faith effort” requirements are pie in the sky that we have seen from their use in the green card process are useless for American workers while causing only a mild nuisance to employers.

    I oppose it on the grounds that it takes the heat off Congress for a real fix but otherwise I do not understand why to either support it or oppose it.


  5. @matloff on Nov. 25, 2015 – “In other words, the bill really misses the boat, and arguably makes things even worse than now. How could those hoping for H-1B reform have gone so far wrong?”

    Norm –

    To paraphrase one of the more arrogant software vendors with whom I have had to deal with on several occasions when calling their support line to report defects:

    “The system is working as designed…”


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