Noble and Ignoble Goals in Immigration Policy

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.


15 thoughts on “Noble and Ignoble Goals in Immigration Policy

  1. @matloff December 1, 2015: ‘Helping people in distress is an American value.’

    I’ll ignore the empirical question (to what extent Americans have reduced or intensified the distress of others throughout US history) as beyond the scope or domain of this blog. That being said:

    Given that we are discussing both conflict refugees and economic migrants, your usage “muddies the waters,” crucially omitting spatiality. We should reduce the economic distress of foreigners *in their homelands* by ceasing to exploit them: e.g., we should not export subsidized food to Central America and the Caribbean (esp Haiti, probably the nation most distressed by the US over the past 200+ years). We should reduce the distress of foreigners *in conflict zones* by admitting them into the US as refugees because/when (and only in case that) they cannot effectively be protected in their homelands.

    @matloff December 1, 2015: ‘By contrast, enabling U.S. employers to hire foreign workers as young, cheap, immobile labor is antithetical to American values.’

    Well put, though I would say that “allowing US elites to import exploitable workers to drive down the standard of living of their fellow citizens betrays not only those citizens, but also legitimate immigrants, their children, and American values.” Because I suspect that

    * we == IT/STEM workers cannot win the technical-visa issue on our own–our struggle gets marginalized as a “geek thing.”

    * we must build a larger coalition against mass immigration, especially its most exploitable form, *illegal* immigration.

    * we must make clear the link between mass immigration and housing markets (i.e., the affordable-housing crisis) and education markets (i.e., unaffordable tuition/fees) as well as labor markets.

    * we must make clear to current, legal immigrants that continued mass migration–esp illegal immigration–threatens their children’s futures. (E.g., a (perhaps the) major cause of high unemployment among citizen Hispanic youth is competition from illegals for what were once “entry-level jobs.”)

    @matloff December 1, 2015: ‘The vast majority of employer sponsorships for H-1B visas and green cards, the hiring of OPTs, etc. are counter to American values.’

    Well put.

    @matloff December 1, 2015: ‘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.’

    Not so well put 🙂 I’m increasingly suspicious of (b) both because:

    1. It’s obviously true that this argument is being used to legitimate importing the mediocre and the exploitable. Am I missing something?

    2. The US seems quite capable of producing world-class “brightness” in quantity.

    3. To the extent that the US is *not* (capable of producing world-class “brightness” in sufficient quantity), we need to focus on educating (and feeding and housing and health-care-ing) our own.


    • As usual, you have written far too lengthy an essay for a “reader comments” section on a blog. Please be briefer.

      I won’t respond to all of your points, simply due to lack of time, but this one in particular cries out for comment:

      We should reduce the economic distress of foreigners *in their homelands* by ceasing to exploit them: e.g., we should not export subsidized food to Central America and the Caribbean (esp Haiti, probably the nation most distressed by the US over the past 200+ years).

      Tom it’s sadly ironic that you don’t see the fallacy in this comment of yours, which is all too popular in some circles, though in the form of saying this is why we should TAKE a lot of refugees — they’re fleeing conditions caused by the U.S. Most Americans had no input on such incidents. Instead, those abuses were committed largely for the same corporate structures that benefits from H-1B.


  2. Agreed. I think that most Americans support some degree of shared sacrifice to help those truly in need. In the case of refugees, there may be some impacts on job markets, schools, social services and the like. For that, I think that most Americans would support government policies that would minimize those sacrifices for Americans least able to make them and that those policies would be funded by progressive taxes so as to share the sacrifice fairly. In the case of many H-1B, on the other hand, the sacrifice is made chiefly be American workers, especially older workers, with the CEOs and upper management actually benefiting. As the recent book “Sold Out” states “the combined salaries of all the 320 “cast members” Disney replaced is much lower than the $ 46.5 million the company paid to CEO Iger in 2014”. To take an huge, increasing salary when everyone in your company is benefiting is one thing. But to take it after selling out 320 of your “cast members” is very much “ignoble”.


  3. I don’t agree on this particular set of refugees given the security risks involved and an incompetent government that I don’t trust to separate the good refugees from the (albeit) minority of bad ones. If we didn’t have such high security risks I would support admitting some of the refugees, particularly mothers with children and the elderly. The able bodied men have an obligation to go and fight the terrorists not run from them. That’s my opinion, it may be flawed, but I think it is important that we live in a society that allows us to have honest debate without impugning reputations suggesting the other is racist or xenophobic.

    But where I do agree strongly with you Norm is on an American values driven immigration program where we strive to achieve the loftier goals, and not simply serve the greed of man. This is where we go wrong with the economic motivated immigration programs which place profit above all else.

    We should be welcoming of immigrants. The motives in shaping those programs are mostly wrong and people need to take a good look in the mirror on immigration. We need to shape the debate around the values we hold. We may not agree on all points, but at least the conversation starts at a better “more American” place.

    So thank you for daring to have an opinion on important topics like this. In this hyper sensitive world where some try to bully others into their way of thinking using political correctness, fewer and fewer people are willing to have this conversation.

    I opposed the Iraq war before it was politically correct and even lost a job as a result. The facts didn’t support war, so neither did I. What I learned then is that freedom isn’t free and in a (unhealthy) democracy people will be punished for speaking truth (or their interpretation of it). Even so we still have an obligation to do so.

    My greatest fear today is that political correctness will silence democracy. We can’t allow that to silence us.


  4. No, the USA did not cause their distress. The USA tried to clean up messes and, being reticent, did not do a thorough job of it.

    Investigating prospective guest-workers, visitors, and immigrants has a history back to colonial times. These are core American values. Being sheep is contrary to American values.

    We should take a few deserving refugees and send the rest away, just as we did with ship-loads of repeat criminals from London in the 1770s. The in-betweeners, the boundary cases we should constrain and observe, and strive to convert or reform or integrate or assimilate, accepting valuable cultural practices and punishing or eliminating those who initiate force or fraud, in proportion to their crimes. At least we can clearly spot the initiations of force in nearly all cases, spot initiators of fraud much of the time.

    Brightness, we traditionally measured informally, recently more exactly but sometimes erroneously, but today, the PC crowd actively refuse to let us try to measure and refine measurement methods, so that’s pretty much out, I suppose, as much as that’s an option I would prefer.

    In any case, since about 1885 the USA has admitted far far far too many, and we have suffered greatly because of it. (And whoever hatched the malware that has infected my other device which I can’t replace for being unemployed and can’t delouse for its being so superannuated, has succeeded in his purpose of making me cranky, so that putting up with other “welcome all the migrants/ refugees/ asylum seekers/ terrorists/ cross-border criminals indiscriminately” non-sense is a straw too much.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is hard to get too worked up over the current refugee situation when members of my extended family in similar – actually a more dire situation – have been denied that opportunity in years past. They did not overstay/invade but returned home as required by law.

    And for the expectation that all should be admitted, I have evidence from Ellis Island records that my grandmother’s younger sister (age 7) was denied entry even though her mother and older brother had already immigrated and were established in the US and able to support the rest of the family. Obviously, at that young age she was not a criminal – just sick from the voyage in steerage which had already caused the death of her twin. As for American compassion, she died there never permitted to join her mother and siblings.

    The door to the US has not always been open to ethnic minorities suffering from severe discrimination in their homelands or fleeing conflicts there. The current reports about how immigration worked in the past are not totally accurate. The study of your own family genealogy is very informative and may change your view of current immigration policy once you know how your ancestors have actually been treated based on the immigration laws in times past.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Norm,

    There is a middle ground between the risks of only excluding known terrorists or terrorist supporters, and screening out all “Muslims” or some other very broad category from eligibility for resettlement. INA 212(a)(3)(D) makes “any immigrant who is or has been a member of or affiliated with … any totalitarian party (or subdivision or affiliate thereof), domestic or foreign” inadmissible. Inadmissible means that they can be deported if the information come to light at any time after admission, even if the refugee was ultimately naturalized. Most entities advocating the establishment of shariah-based government would arguably qualify for designation as totalitarian, as to my knowledge there is no existing party from any sect of Islam that would allow a shariah-based government, once inaugurated, to be changed or overthrown except by violence.

    Screening refugees for affiliation with a shariah-based totalitarian party would legally and rationally expand the screening of UN-referred candidates for resettlement, and also provide additional security in cases where totalitarian Islamist activity was revealed after resettlement. The jurisprudence interpreting the totalitarian party affiliation ground for exclusion as been well-developed since WWII. Designation of Islamist (an alternative term for shariah-based) parties as totalitarian would only require executive agency action, under existing federal law. This designation would also make it easier to offer protection to bona fide religious minorities in the Near East without imposing an explicit religious qualification or preference, as some members of Congress have proposed.

    This approach would of course not effect the overall number of refugees that are resettled annually, or the problem of unfunded mandates imposed upon the states to provide welfare and social services. The overall number has since 1980 been delegated by Congress to the discretion of the current President, while welfare eligibility for refugees must be reformed by amending the INA.


  7. @matloff wrote: “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.”

    About two months ago, I had an initial phone interview with a small, but established, insurance company for a junior Java developer position. At the end of the interview, the interviewer (an HR person) was unexpectedly forthcoming about their interview process for a second, senior Java developer position. He explained how they had been trying to fill that position for almost seven months. They had made two offers thus far, but both candidates had countered by asking for a salary of $100K (a perfectly reasonable amount for someone with 10+ years of experience in this geographic area). He explained they could not accommodate that salary because they had only budgeted $80K for the position, and subsequently, both candidates had refused their respective offers. He then lamented, “I guess we’re just going to have to hire an H-1B.”

    As politely as possible, I tried to convey the idea that he just provided an excellent example of how H-1B breaks the supply-and-demand model because they could just go to the H-1B pool if they couldn’t find a developer at their desired salary. Not surprisingly, I received an email a week later stating they did not want to proceed to the next stage of the interview process.

    Bottom line, it’s not just startups using the “cash-strapped” excuse to justify hiring H-1Bs.


    • Excellent example. As you said, this kind of thing is common. Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School of Business has written quite a bit on this, by the way, i.e. about employers claiming “shortages” when they simply don’t want to pay the going rate.


  8. I’m skeptical of bringing Mid East refugees to the U.S. and think it’s much more cost effective and better for the region to keep them nearby in similar countries.

    The security question looms large, and we are bringing in a lot of people who hate Israel & the U.S.

    Mark Krikorian of CIS cites this story and says the cost of educating 1 million refugee kids in nearby countries for a year is less than the full cost of settling 8,000 refugees in the U.S. for 5 years. [Refugees typically have a high level of welfare and other government benefits.]

    “But a lack of money is holding us back. For about $500 million, or $500 per year per student, we could put 1 million refugee children into school across Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.”


    Also many people are gaming the system for refugee or asylum status. With a government and elite who are so pro-immigration, enforcement tends to fall by the wayside.

    “…it was an open secret in the Chinese community that most asylum applications were at least partly false, from fabricated narratives of persecution to counterfeit supporting documents and invented witness testimony…When clients veered off-script during interviews with asylum officers, prosecutors said, some interpreters would falsely translate the client’s words.”


  9. Refugees will find employment across the range of occupations. They will consume, earn, change jobs and participate in the economy generally. No problem.

    Bringing 800,000 workers into a relatively small sector of the labor market, without protections or bargaining power, and subject to loss of status will have a focused depressing effect on that sector of the labor market.


    • Your first paragraph is something I’ve been saying for years: Our immigration policy should result in a socioeconomic mix similar to what we already have; otherwise, certain segment are hurt.

      I agree with your second paragraph technically, but unfortunately many would say that this implies a Staple a Green Card policy, which I strongly oppose.


  10. Norm, thanks for pointing out the moral element. We have two types of people who enable the Infosys/Intel exploitation, and unfortunately I don’t think either will easily be persuaded by moral arguments favoring techies.

    We have social conservatives, who enable political and economic conservatives and vote against their own economic interests. A lot of these folks are fighting for their economic lives and probably won’t have a lot of sympathy for $100K+ techies or poor immigrants.

    And we have (pardon the phrase) the “bleeding heart liberals”. They seem to think America is a bottomless well, and that anything that sounds anti-immigrant is racist.

    Each side is blinded by their own “moral” perspective. Both sides have a difficult time seeing that the H-1B situation is part of a larger issue that impacts them all. It also makes it next to impossible for either side to be objective about accepting Syrian refugees.

    Ideally we should have a rational policy that helps and protects Americans physically and economically, and helps refugees as long as it doesn’t impact the help and protect Americans aspect. But considering that I’m writing this the day after the San Bernardino massacre and the failure of a gun control bill to pass in the Senate, I’m not optimistic.


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