I heard from quite a few people, both in my blog and in e-mail, in response to my recent posting on the Syrian refugees. I wrote,
I’ve been meaning to write here my thoughts on the recent actions by some state governors and the U.S. House to keep out (or, greatly slow down the entry of) the Syrian refugees. President Obama bitterly lashed out against the governors’ and congresspeople’s actions, saying that such policies would represent the loss of precious American values…
I must state ahead of time that I side with our president on this issue. We should take the refugees, and yes, this is a deeply ingrained part of our national culture. But it’s not that simple.
I went on to say that at some point we may have to decide whether acceptance of refugees has become a sufficiently serious threat to our national security that we must reluctantly reconsider our generosity to the world’s distressed. Even if those who would do us harm form a minuscule percentage of the refugees, those few have the potential to do harm so grave that the percentage becomes irrelevant. It is my belief that we are not there yet, but really I don’t have enough information to tell; I’m not sure even Obama does. (See also my comments on percentages regarding the Kate Steinle murder.)
Some people wondered whether my comments on refugees were consistent with my views on H-1B. Don’t refugees have adverse impacts on U.S. citizen and permanent resident workers? What if many of the refugees were in STEM fields, for instance?
Such comments miss the point I was trying to make in my posting: Helping people in distress is an American value. By contrast, enabling U.S. employers to hire foreign workers as young, cheap, immobile labor is antithetical to American values.
Reasonable people may disagree on who should qualify as a refugee, and on issues such as levels of security threats, but I think the basic principle held by most Americans is that we are willing to make some degree of sacrifice — in terms of impacts on job markets, schools, social services and the like — in order to help others desperately in need. But helping tech employers cheat the American worker is NOT a value held by most Americans.
So there is an absolutely fundamental difference between the H-1B and refugee issues. But there’s more: In recent weeks it has become increasingly clear to me that many in the immigration reform (i.e. “restrictionist”) community — not just people in organizations, but also researchers, Hill staffers and so on — do not realize how much H-1B is counter to American values. There is still the (incorrect) view among them that H-1B is used responsibly by the “Intels,” with the main abuse being at the hands of the “Infosyses.”
This of course is a topic on which I have harped, incessantly. But people are busy and no time to read in detail, let alone reflect on the content, and they are highly influenced by their preconceptions, very hard to break. So, I wish to encapsulate my views here:
Norm’s view on the role of STEM employment-based immigration — what it should be versus what it is:
Policy on the hiring of foreign STEM workers, whether as guest workers or for permanent residence, should be for (a) the remedying of legitimate (and rare) labor shortages, and (b) attracting the world’s “best and brightest” to the U.S.
In practice, the vast majority of employers who sponsor foreign labor in STEM do NOT do so for reasons (a) and (b) above. The vast majority of positions filled by foreign workers, whether at Intels or Infosyses, could be filled by qualified U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Granted, there is some variation in intention. In an Infosys, the intention to hire foreigners is open — whereas in the Intels, it’s merely an open secret.
In some cases, not everyone is in on the secret. A hiring manager, for example, may be sent mostly foreign CVs by HR, and not realize that HR has filtered out applicants with U.S. nationality and/or older age (the latter being closely connected to abuse of the H-1B program).
Or, there may be an awareness that H-1Bs are being hired as cheap labor, but with the view that this is actually justified, such as hiring by cash-strapped startups. Some of you probably gasped when your read this last sentence, but I’ve actually had journalists make such an argument to me in all seriousness; such is the hallowed status of tech startups in our national consciousness. And just yesterday, a foreign tech worker made that very argument to me in a discussion on Quora.
Bottom line: The vast majority of employer sponsorships for H-1B visas and green cards, the hiring of OPTs, etc. are counter to American values.