Dream (not DREAM) Act

Senators Cruz and Sessions have introduced a new H-1B reform bill, and lo and behold, it really would bring genuine reform. This bill is even better than the Nelson-Sessions bill that came out last week. In the words of an old, old song, “A drunkard’s dream, if I ever did see one.” 🙂 This is indeed a nearly ideal piece of legislation for those of us who have been critical of H-1B and other tech worker programs for years.

Of course, for that very reason, the bill may not have any chance of even reaching committee, let alone being enacted. And as I pointed out regarding the Nelson-Sessions bill, if “staple a green card” legislation were to pass (automatic green cards awarded to STEM foreign students at U.S. universities), all bets are off; the bill applies almost entirely to H-1B, which would become largely irrelevant under staple-a-green.

Here are what I consider the major features (I won’t list the Infosyses-specific provisions, e.g. anti-benching):

  • $110,000 salary floor: Actually, the required pay would be the higher of $110K and “the annual wage that was paid to the United States citizen or lawful permanent resident employee who did identical or similar work during the 2 years before…”
  • Goodbye, OPT: The Optional Practical Training program, added years ago by executive fiat to the F-1 student visa program, is an abomination, key to the hiring of foreign students instead of Americans. This provision disbands the program, and says if such a program is to exist, it must be properly implemented, i.e. enacted by the legislative branch.
  • Anti-layoff provision: The language here could be a little tighter, but basically it would ban hiring of H-1Bs in time proximity of a layoff for workers in the same occupation.
  • H-1Bs must have a PhD or 10+ years of work experience: The tech industry has always claimed it hires H-1Bs because not enough Americans pursue doctoral degrees. This is egregiously misleading — most of the H-1B they hire don’t have PhDs — but this provision calls the industry on that claim. Ditto for the industry claim that it hires people who are world leaders in their field — fresh out of school? And paid at Level I or II on the 4-level scale?
  • Recruit Americans first:  Other than for the H-1B dependent category of employers, H-1B has no such requirement. Employer-sponsored green cards do have such a provision, but it is easily circumvented. Nevertheless, in combination with the OPT disbandment and this bill’s provisions for public posting of jobs, more complaint rights and so on, this is worthwhile.
  • Whistleblower freedom: If an employee reports abuse of H-1B, the employer cannot consider that to be a violation of the Nondisclosure Agreement the worker signed.

It’s odd that the first press reports I’ve seen on the bill, such as those in Computerworld, Breitbart and CIS, don’t mention the most draconian provision of all, requiring a PhD or 10+ years of work experience. This will be the first one the industry will shoot down, citing examples of “brilliant” foreign workers who don’t have a PhD.

Some have wondered whether that $110K salary floor is high enough in high-cost areas like Silicon Valley, and the answer is mostly yes, I believe. I’ve stressed over the years that a core ingredient of H-1B is age; younger workers are cheaper, so employers hire young foreign workers instead of older (35+) Americans, with new graduates being the main group of interest to employers.

The majority of new graduates in computer science get nowhere near that $110K figure, so this provision would quash most of the abuse. Even Stanford grads, who I found in 2010 were getting offers 37% above graduates of “ordinary” schools, are averaging “only” $90K.

That figure is presumably at the Bachelor’s level. Carnegie-Mellon University, another very top CS program (Rank 2 in the U.S. by some surveys), reports a mean of $104,000 for new Master’s degree grads in Silicon Valley; again, the figures for most schools will be well below those for CMU.

Note that the bill actually requires that the H-1B be paid the higher of $110K and the American worker who last held the position filled by the H-1B. This is very poor phrasing, nonsense really. It clearly is aimed at the “Infosyses” setting in which Americans were directly replaced by H-1Bs.

So, though the bill would be “safer” with a higher floor than $110K, this figure would do a lot of good. There would still be many foreign workers hired in place of qualified Americans, but the number of such instances would be greatly diminished.

Note carefully that these figures are for CS. For most fields, such as statistics/data science (a very rapidly increasing field for H-1Bs) and non-CS branches of engineering,  that $110K floor would stem almost all of the abuse.

The bill is not perfect, of course. For example, consider the second core reason why employers love to hire H-1Bs: If they sponsor the worker for a green card, the worker is trapped, for fear of having to start the very lengthy green card process all over again with another employer. As I’ve explained before, this is hugely important to employers, even more than saving on salary. The bill does not address this problem, even though it does ban employers from penalizing foreign workers who leave for another employer.

As another example of what the bill is lacking, the bill enables American worker to file a complaint if they are replaced by H-1Bs, but NOT if an H-1B is hired instead of them.

Both of these shortcomings reflect an obsession with the Infosyses. But that is to be forgiven, as the bill does plenty to stem abuse by the Intels, and those firms will howl.

Trump, H-1B and Muslims

I recently wrote here in defense of the U.S. accepting Syrian refugees, in agreement with President Obama’s contention that America’s tradition of helping desperate innocents should not be so quickly or easily be curtailed. My stance of course is the same concerning “El Donald’s” call for a moratorium in entry of Muslims to the U.S.; Trump is wrong, on a number of levels.

But quickly following Trump’s incendiary statements, Pat Thibodeau of Computerworld wrote up an article on what Trump’s policy would mean for the H-1B work visa program. Thibodeau has done a truly outstanding job over the years in covering the H-1B beat for the magazine, so I was a bit surprised by the alarmist tone of the article, such as his statement,

If, under some incredible circumstance, Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States were to become law, it would have significant impact on the H-1B program.

I am very doubtful that more than a few percent of H-1Bs or other tech-related entrants to the U.S. are Muslims. In particular, a group that Pat cites, foreign PhD students in CS, is one that I know quite well, having worked with them closely for several decades, both in my own university and in research conferences and the like.

This is not to say there are no such students. I’ve known a number of them, and came to the active defense of one who I felt was being treated in a prejudiced manner by two faculty colleagues (both of them nonwhite immigrants, by the way). But in percentage terms, I doubt that more than 5% of foreign CS doctoral students are Muslims.

That Computerworld article would make interesting side-by-side reading with a recent piece in the Washington Post. Headlined “This is the group that’s surprisingly prone to violent extremism,” a subheading explains what group we’re talking about:

Engineers are much more likely to become fundamentalist terrorists

Before you rush to check to see whether the Post article was authored by Mr. Trump, let me assure you that it is a regular article, citing research soon to be published by Princeton University Press. According to the article, the researchers found

More than twice as many members of violent Islamist organizations have engineering degrees as have degrees in Islamic studies. Nearly half of those terrorists who had degrees had degrees in engineering. Even if you make extremely generous assumptions, nine times as many terrorists were engineers as you would expect by chance. They find a similar pattern among Islamist terrorists who grew up in the West – fewer of these terrorists had college degrees, but even more of those who had degrees were engineers.

Some of you may remember that Mohammed Atta, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was an engineer, albeit educated in Germany rather than the U.S. Both of the perpetrators in the San Bernardino attacks had health-related degrees; imagine what even broader harm they could have brought.

Getting back to Trump, I must say that while I disagree with him on this issue, I find some of his critics interviewed on CNN etc. to be just as rash and simplistic as he is. Several have mentioned the WW II internment of ethnic Japanese, some of whom were U.S. citizens, as one of those “Never again!” things, something inherently racist.  While I don’t defend that action either (among other things, they confiscated the internees’ property and often didn’t return it after the war), calling it “racist” is a little strong. I’m sure many Chinese-Americans, with relatives in China while Japan was brutally and barbarically attacking that country, didn’t regard the internment as racist. And the utter shock of many Americans at seeing a foreign attack on American soil, must have been extremely profound.  And I wonder how long Trump’s critics will hold out if there are, tragically, more Bostons and San Bernardinos in the coming months.

Nothing is simple these days.



Nelson-Sessions Bill Short and Sweet

Now Senators Nelson and Sessions have introduced their own H-1B reform bill. Unlike the Durbin-Grassley bill, it would have positive impacts and contains no big favors for the “Intels.”

This new bill is a model of simplicity:

  • It would cut the H-1B cap from 85,000 new visas per year to 70,000. This would be done by subtracting 15,000 from the current yearly cap of 65,000 “ordinary” new H-1B visas; the 20,000 supplement for foreign students with a graduate degree would remain intact (as would the exempt categories, unfortunately).
  • In the event (a yearly one, in recent times) that there are more applications for visas than the cap allows, the applications would be processed in order of offered salary. This applies to both the “ordinary” H-1Bs and the one mentioned above for foreign students.

That second provision was proposed a few years ago by CWA and the Programmers Guild, and is something I’ve always supported.

Of course, if Congress were to separately pass a staple-a-green-card bill (or add it to this one), all bets are off, as it would be an end-run around H-1B entirely. This is what happened in a bill by Rep. Zoe Lofgren a few years ago; she had a provision to award H-1B visas by order of salary, but also had staple-a-green.

The bill is a breath of fresh air in the midst of so many poisonous pieces of legislation introduced in the last few years.



Chinese Foreign Students at Rice Become Activists Supporting OPT

Interesting piece in the student newspaper at Rice University, regarding an organized effort by Chinese international students there in support of the OPT extension.

Rice is one of my favorites. It’s got a beautiful campus, and has first-rate departments in my two fields, Computer Science and Statistics. It also is one of the more selective schools at the undergraduate level in the U.S.; most immigrant Tiger Moms probably haven’t heard of it, but it offers outstanding educational opportunities.

One analyst who has been following the OPT case closely told me on November 12 that “Suddenly today, about 8000 comments showed up on the OPT rule [signature Web page]. Nearly all I have scanned support it and nearly all have Chinese names.” This jibes with the Rice newspaper article, though of course it’s no surprise. It does again raise the question of how much weight, if any, DHS and the judge in the case should give signatures of noncitizens.

Ron Hira and others have pointed out that the OPT extension’s ostensible rationale to give foreign students practical training to complement their formal studies makes no sense. These students typically have graduate degrees of a professional nature such as CS, so their studies are already practice-oriented, and in any case THREE YEARS of internship is just plain silly.

Thus it is to the credit of Baker, the Office of International Students and Scholars Executive Director quoted in the article, that she makes no pretense that these students need more training. She states the real reason, which is that the students use OPT as an end-run around the H-1B cap. (Even DHS has admitted this is the real reason for the proposed extension.)

But Baker also claims something more (here and below, bold emphasis added):

“From the student perspective, it would be terrible because there would be so many students who are assuming they can stay longer, and they can’t,” Baker said. “And it’s horrible for the companies because the companies are depending on these students. They hire them because they are the best people for that field.”

Well, actually often they hire them for a very different reason — to obtain immobile workers. This is viewed by employers as a huge benefit, and is pitched as such by immigration lawyers. Ms. Baker should go to the Web page of David Swaim, who designed Texas Instruments’ immigration policy, and now runs his own shop. His flashy slide show explains to those employers who don’t already know the secret about the foreign students (who hold F-1 visas):

Most [American] college graduates leave in less than two years. F-1 students who want permanent residence must stay seven to twelve years…In most cases the employee is required to wait under an extensive quota system which can be anywhere from five to ten years, depending on the position and the employee’s place of birth. It is this step in the process which allows the employer to maximize the retention advantages of hiring international students…[Concerning the cost of green card sponsorship:] Since the legal system requires the international employee to keep the same employment for seven to twelve years, the ‘cost’ [the lawyer says $8,000] of that employee should be viewed in the greater context of the value that employee brings to the company…minor compared to the overall compensation.

But doesn’t Rice’s selectivity at the undergraduate level imply the same for graduate programs? Unfortunately not. It has become common for universities to offer special Master’s degrees, as revenue generators (no financial support is offered). Needless to say, universities are not going to be too picky in their admissions standards for such programs. I see that Rice has a CS program that appears to be in this category, and one for Statistics.

Rice is definitely a nice place for Chinese foreign students. The first time I went there (2012), I noticed that the Chinese food place in the student union listed its daily specials on a blackboard in Chinese — but not in English. A sure sign the food would be good, which it was.

The article quotes one of the Chinese students who organized the drive to sign the OPT comments page:

Computer science master’s student and recent alumni Maggie Tang (Lovett ’15) approached RCSSA early November in hopes that the organization, as a unified body, could call Chinese students to action. One of the main proponents of the campaign, Tang said the email was a response to a flood of negative, extremist and sometimes uninformed comments [by Americans]. 

I’m sure Tang means well, but I’d say she’s the one who is uninformed.

Excellent EPI Analysis of Proposed OPT Extension

Many of you are aware of the fact that the Optional Practical Training portion of the F-1 foreign student visa is the “sleeper” of the tech foreign worker programs, just as harmful to American workers as the H-1B work visa. Ostensibly a practical supplement for the foreign student to pick up before he/she returns home, it has become an end-run around the H-1B cap, and would play a key role in rendering useless most of the H-1B reforms that have been proposed.

This is especially true in light of the fact that the Obama administration wants to expand OPT, beyond even the expansion previously set by George W. Bush. A judge found that the first expansion had been done improperly, by not putting the matter out for public comment. Now the White House has incorporated its new expansion proposal into a document open for public comment to comply with the judge’s order.

Daniel Costa and Ron Hira have now posted their comments, representing EPI, on the matter. They’ve made available a summary as well, but I urge anyone with a serious interest in H-1B and related issues to read the document in full. It is a tour de force, cogently explaining the (extralegal) history of the program, its impacts so far, and the very serious adverse effects that would occur if it is approved. My hat is off to Daniel and Ron.

However, there is one glaring omission — the relation of OPT to age discrimination. As I’ve often noted, in STEM it is standard to hire young foreign workers instead of older (35+) Americans, because younger workers are cheaper. Making it even easier for employers to hire new-grad (and thus young) foreign students obviously would exacerbate the already-severe problem.

There are other points that should have been included in the EPI document. One is that, even though immobility of the foreign workers comes mainly from green card sponsorship, many foreign workers will be happy to be subservient to the boss merely in the HOPE that the latter will later sponsor the worker for a green card. I’ve mentioned before a quote from Computerworld, February 28, 2005:

Most of the students enrolled in the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s graduate program are foreign nationals. The Newark-based school has so far received 208 applications for admission in computer science master’s degree programs next year, with about 165 of those applications from foreign students, said Stephen Seideman, dean of the school’s college of computing science. The foreign students “will do everything they can to stay here,” he said.

That not only means that foreign students are generally willing to work for lower pay (a green card represents huge nonmonetary compensation for them), but also their resulting  “loyalty” to the employer is hugely attractive to the employer. All this puts American workers at even more of a disadvantage in applying for jobs.

Another important point: Once the employer hires an OPT, experience in that job automatically makes the foreign worker more qualified than American applicants a couple of years later, when the employer sponsors the worker for a green card and must show that no qualified Americans could be found for the position.

All in all, a really outstanding writeup. But will DHS listen? Remember, the “public” comment is not restricted to citizens, and there are apparently tens of thousands of comments from foreign students, e.g. whole blocks of comments from those with Chinese names (PRC pinyin spelling).

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.