I made a post here the other day about an online exhibit at the Smithsonian, describing the lives of South Asians involved with the H-1B visa program. Computerworld has now run a piece on the exhibit as well. I have a few more comments, including one later that some of your may find very troubling.
But first I want to invoke Freud’s famous remark, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” 🙂 With an emotional issue like H-1B, it’s easy to let one’s imagination run wild, and I think that is true here for the Smithsonian incident.
The day I posted about the exhibit, an academic I know wrote to me, calling my attention to the last panel of the exhibit, which this academic felt was suspicious, with ominous-sounding phrasing, “The exhibit featured here may in some cases have been created by an independent third party…” But really, folks, this phrasing has all the earmarks of a boilerplate legal disclaimer, no sinister plots.
Now the Computerworld article quotes Professor Ron Hira, who as many of you know is a prominent critic of the H-1B program:
The challenge is in the framing of the exhibit, said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University and a longtime critic of the temporary work visa program. “Will it become a way to conflate H-1Bs with green cards?” he asked.
A green card is issued for permanent residency.
“If so, and my guess is it will turn out that way, then the Smithsonian is playing in the political realm by distorting how the H-1B program is used by South Asians,” said Hira. “The majority are now used for temporary labor mobility only.”
I’ve never understood the argument that green card sponsorship somehow makes the Intels more responsible in use of foreign worker programs, while the “evil” Infosyses rarely use the green card process. On the contrary, the Intels are arguably worse, because they use green card sponsorship as a way to keep the foreign worker immobile during the many-year process.
At any rate, I don’t think there is a nefarious scheme afoot at the Smithsonian. Ron is certainly correct that the Smithsonian improperly conflated H-1B with green cards, and by the way, they also conflated Asians with Asian-Americans. But I don’t think it’s deliberate. My experience with ethnic activists, in this case the artists in the exhibit and its curator, is that they don’t put so much emphasis on technically precise language as for example, a mathematician like me does. And the fact is that most employment-based green card sponsorees from India have begun work as H-1Bs. So, not so far off, really.
However, that doesn’t mean I’m letting the Smithsonian off the hook, because guess what! — the Smithsonian hires H-1Bs too. And the biggest job category is not something like, say Ichthyologists, but in fact is Computer and Information Specialists. IT people! Not a lot them hired, but this certainly sounds fishy (if you don’t mind the pun).
Some of you must be wondering how a government agency can hire an H-1B. I don’t know the details, but I’ve been told it’s common, including on the state level. I remember years ago, an immigration attorney told me he had represented the California state government in hiring an HP 3000 programmer, for a machine popular at the time.
I don’t think the foreign workers were hired to save on wages directly, in the sense of underpayment. A more likely reason is that they had found that Americans weren’t sticking around long at low government wages, and the Smithsonian wanted immobile workers, just like the Intels do. If so, that means they probably sponsor these foreign workers for green cards, again showing that such sponsorship doesn’t imply the employer is acting responsibly.
Another possibllity is that the Smithsonian wanted to hire programmers for localization, meaning in this case software that can handle English and Chinese, or English and Spanish and so on. But there are tons of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have that skill.
This reminds of the time in 2008 when the Dallas Morning News sponsored a bilingual sports photographer for a green card. A reporter for the paper told me this during her interview of me, and she laughed out loud at the fact that the publication was claiming it couldn’t find Spanish-speaking American photographers — in Dallas, not Des Moines. (Today you could probably find them even in Des Moines.) See also related material in a 2011 e-newletter posting of mine.
Note again that the Morning News sponsored the foreign photographer for a green card. Does that make it less of an abuse? That reporter sure didn’t think so; she was laughing at the absurdity of it, but she was not pleased.
Speaking of wrong conflations: Don’t equate green card sponsorship with ethics.