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.