OPT Expansion on List of Examples of Obama “Leadership” in Tech

Today the White House released a report titled, “100 Examples of President Obama’s Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation.” An alert reader of this blog noticed Number 25 on the list:

25. Unlocked the talents of more high-skilled immigrant workers, scientists, and engineers. The Administration has strengthened and extended on-the-job training for international STEM graduates from U.S. universities. Approximately 34,000 individuals are participating in the STEM Optional Practical Training program at present, and with these improvements the total may expand to nearly 50,000 in the first year and grow to approximately 92,000 by the tenth year of implementation.

These 34,000/50,000/92,000 foreign students will compete with American STEM professionals for jobs, reducing wages and blocking older Americans from access to many STEM jobs. Though some are “the best and the brightest,” i.e. exceptionally talented people whose immigration should be facilitated, most of them are ordinary people doing ordinary work. The president’s action here is completely at odds with his claim to want to encourage Americans to go into STEM (see items 22-24 on his list).

As many of you know, a lawsuit was brought against the OPT expansion. The White House vigorously defended the policy in court, and at this point has apparently won. But it is one thing to quietly expand the program and quite another to proudly present it as one of Obama’s great accomplishments in tech.

And, it is one thing to reluctantly cave to political pressure from the industry and universities regarding OPT, but quite another to actually believe in this action. It would seem that by actually taking public pride in the action, the Obama people really do believe that it is the right thing to do. Assuming that to be the case, the question arises, Why?

Certainly the White House ought to know better. It knew the arguments against OPT from the lawsuit, and an influential Democratic Party-aligned organization, EPI, published an excellent analysis.

One reason that the Obama people have ignored the problems with OPT is — sorry to bring this up yet again — the “Intels Good, Infosyses Bad” issue that I keep bringing up. Since the Intels are the ones to hire OPTs, it is easy to believe that OPT is a good program and should be expanded. Yet another example of the toxic nature of the “Intels Good, Infosyses Bad” attitude, which unfortunately even the immigration reform groups do little or nothing to counter.

Another possible reason is the “Let’s steal China’s engineers” notion that has been common in DC for some years. Given Obama’s aggressive stance on China in a number of ways, this seems very possible.

Quite disappointing to see Obama actually taking public pride on the OPT expansion.



The Fine Art of Sophistry

Tomorrow’s New York Times runs a letter to the editor by Bruce Morrison, a lobbyist for IEEE-USA who as a congressperson back in 1990 had a hand in creating the H-1B work visa. Here Morrison is writing on the NYT editorial on which I commented last week.

Recall that the main points in my commentary were that

  • as usual, the Times falsely focused on the “Infosyses” as the main abusers of the visa, implying that the “Intels” use the program responsibly, and
  • the Times incorrectly identified the loophole by which the Infosyses could underpay their H-1Bs; they stated it was due to the fact that, e.g. Disney, can “rent” H-1Bs from the Infosyses, when in fact the real loophole is that the law allows employing younger, thus cheaper H-1Bs instead of older, thus more expensive Americans.

Before I get to Morrison’s letter, a bit of background: In 1998, as part of the first expansion of the H-1B cap, Congress enacted a special category of H-1B employers, called H-1B dependent employers. These basically were the Infosyses, who were accused of being the main abusers, just as the accusation goes today. Under the new law, these employers were banned from using H-1Bs to replace American workers. However, an exemption was made for H-1Bs whose salary was above $60,000. Please note: Before this 1998 legislation, the H-1B program had NO requirement that employers must give Americans employment priority. And other than this special H-1B dependent category, there STILL is no such requirement.

What Morrison does is turn the whole thing upside-down:

This Congress should seize the opportunity to do one simple thing to fix a gaping hole in the system: Repeal the special treatment that Congress provided H-1B outsourcing companies in 1998.

Contractors whose business model is to replace American workers who must train their replacements are actually specifically exempted from the requirement not to displace Americans, provided that they pay a salary that amounts to half the market rate for these jobs.

Morrison thus makes it sound like H-1B employers in general are not allowed to displace Americans, which is not true. He is also implying that in 1998, Congress must have had some special fondness for the Infosyses, and thus gave the latter special permission to displace U.S. workers. Even worse, Morrison implies that Congress even told the Infosyses how much they could underpay their H-1Bs, specifically 50%.  I’ve never seen someone, even a lobbyist, manage to say so many misleading things in a single sentence.

And what about that comment on the H-1Bs being paid half the market rate? That is precisely the age issue that I keep harping on. Congress set up a four-tiered wage level for H-1Bs, based on experience, which is tantamount to age. This four-level system is the crux of the manner in which employers (all of them, not just Infosyses) can hire H-1Bs as cheap labor.

And there’s more: Originally the wage requirement was only two-tiered, but in 2004 the employers successfully lobbied Congress for four levels, resulting in the lowest, Level I, being especially cheap. And who joined the employers in pushing for the expansion from two levels to four? IEEE-USA.

Outrageous NYT Editorial

Many of you who have read today’s New York Times editorial must be puzzled at my term outrageous in the title of my post here. “Isn’t the Times finally stepping up to the plate and calling out the tech industry on the H-1B sham?”, you might ask me.

Well, no. There are two big problems. Some of you will have already guessed what the first problem is — the Times again gives the mainstream tech industry, the “Intels,” a pass, claiming the abuse is only among the IT services firms (ITSFs), the “Infosyses.” (And yes, I am including the American ITSFs as Infosyses.) That is incorrect, as I’ve shown before.

But what is the second problem with this editorial? It says the abuses of H-1B stem from loopholes in the law, which is true, but says the loophole enabling use of H-1Bs as cheap labor is that U.S. firms can legally replace American workers by H-1Bs supplied by ITSFs. Yes, the law allows such replacement, but that does NOT explain why this supplies cheap labor. The key question is, Why is it legal for the ITSFs to underpay their H-1Bs?

I fear that even the sharpest among you readers will not be able to answer that question. This is unfortunate, as I have harped on it so often:  AGE. The H-1Bs supplied to Disney, SCE etc. are cheaper primarily because they are much younger than the Americans they replaced. And that enables the mainstream firms to hire cheap foreign labor too.

The issue of Disney et al hiring “rented” H-1Bs is secondary. As the Times concedes, the ITSFs are complying with the law, and exploiting loopholes, which must be plugged. WHICH loopholes? WHY are the H-1Bs so much cheaper? The Times does not answer this central question, and apparently doesn’t realize they’ve missed the boat.

Why can’t the nation’s foremost newspaper see this basic flaw in their analysis? One reason is that all that publicity about Disney has obscured the real issues.

The Year of the Fourth Estate

For us longtime political junkies, the drama of this year’s election is unbeatable. Open intramural antagonism in both major parties, remarkable success of “extreme” candidates (the term meaning here ones that dare point out the utter disconnect between the pols and the populace), embarrassingly poor prediction success by the pundits, and so on. Makes for great theatre, if nothing else.

But I’m beginning to think that all that strife within and between parties is creating something of a vacuum into which the press is inserting itself in rather insidious ways. Take the current controversy regarding Trump and Judge Curiel. Putting aside the point that Trump ought to have enough sense to know that one doesn’t publicly criticize a judge under whom one has a case pending, why is the press making such a big deal over Trump’s suggestion that Curiel, a Latino, may be biased against Trump due to the latter’s remarks about illegal immigration from Mexico? Isn’t this the same press that has been constantly telling us that Latinos won’t vote for Trump, exactly for that reason? Which is it? The press can’t have it both ways.

Today NPR told us that something like 16% of the California primary ballots cast had no choice checked for president. This was supposed to indicate a “Pox on both your houses” attitude among voters. Well, maybe there is some of that, but another explanation is that independents were given ballots without choices available for president! Independent voters could ask for a provisional ballot so as to be able to vote for president, but it’s clear that many didn’t know this. And this worked against Bernie’s chances, as has happened before; why isn’t the press reporting it?

And speaking of Bernie (who, yes, I did vote for), why did the AP choose to poll the superdelegates right on the eve of the California primary, then declaring Hillary the victor, before the largest state in the nation had a chance to vote? And why aren’t they reporting the reason why the party has superdelegates in the first place, which is that the party doesn’t want the populace to have too much say in the election — ironically, exactly the kind of thing that Bernie has been running against?

Since I’m divulging my vote now that the primary is over, I might as well mention that I voted for Rep. Loretta Sanchez in the Democratic primary election for US Senate. Democratic state AG Kamala Harris won a plurality of the vote for that office, with about 40%, with Sanchez getting 18% in second place. Under California’s new system, the two top vote getters face off against each other in the general election, even if they are in the same party. Well, NPR wondered aloud today why Sanchez should even bother to run in November. Really? What about the Republican voters? Sure, some won’t vote for either, but Sanchez is a moderate, and has won twice in the quintessential Republican district, Orange County. Presumably many in the GOP will in fact vote for her. And if the press truly thinks ethnicity is so important to Latinos, won’t she get many of their votes too? Sanchez is currently not well known in northern California (the counties she won were all in the south), but once the general election campaign starts, that will change.

I’m usually not one to bash the press, but this year may be different, just like it is for everything else.



A Second WSJ Article on Foreign Students

Back on March, I made a post here titled, “U.S. Universities Souring on Students from China?,” commenting on a Wall Street Journal article titled “Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on U.S. Campuses.” Today’s WSJ ran what amounts to a followup piece, “Foreign Students Seen Cheating More Than Domestic Ones.”(The article is behind a pay wall, but is summarized here.)

I will have quite a bit of commentary on this one, both on the issue of cheating itself and also on the general topic of foreign students. I’ll be a bit long here, but the matter is of high significance from a number of viewpoints, so I ask the reader’s patience.

I will discuss the issue of cheating below, but first wish to bring up the general foreign student issue, especially the point brought up in both WSJ articles about universities having financial incentives to lower the admissions bar for foreign students. I feel obliged to begin with a passage from my March post:

As many readers of this blog know, although I strongly support facilitating the immigration of the world’s “best and brightest,” I am strongly opposed to the “Staple a Green Card to Their Diplomas” proposals, which would give automatic green cards to all foreign students earning STEM Master’s or PhD degrees at U.S. universities. This WSJ article, on which I will comment below, illustrates why “Staple” is a bad idea.

We do have some “best and brightest”-class students from China. Whenever I teach a graduate class, there is typically at least one Chinese student among the top two or three students. I actively help top foreign students find jobs in Silicon Valley. But most of my Chinese students struggle in my class, for the reason cited in the article, profound weakness in analytical skills.

One theme of today’s WSJ piece is that universities are so anxious to get their hands on the foreign students’ cash that they aren’t doing much about that group’s cheating. I am rather doubtful of that, but there is no question that money is the driver in the universities’ quest to attract more foreign students. I my March posting I also noted:

As the article points out, universities, both public and private, are under great pressure to treat foreign students as cash cows, for instance because some schools charge them higher tuition than for domestic students. It should be abundantly clear that this will necessarily cause a lowering of standards, something usually whispered but here discussed openly by a major newspaper. I was told by a colleague at a mid-level university just yesterday that her Computer Science Department has 400 (!) international students in its Master’s program. Since China leads all nations in the number of foreign students in the U.S., the article is even more relevant to the “Staple” issue.

This was recently illustrated in information sent to me concerning the Master’s degree in Statistics (leading into jobs in Data Science, a hot field these days) at UC Berkeley. Like the programs described above, the UCB program seems aimed at foreign students, and no wonder! Each international student in the program brings in a total of $28,000 above and beyond what a domestic student in a nonprofessional program pays. (This breaks down to $6,122.50 in nonresident tuition and $7,875.00 for the “professional degree supplement” per semester. Domestic (CA) students are subject to the latter but not the former.)

Curiously, the department itself raises the question of the concentration of foreign students in the program, but then refuses to answer. But one can get a good idea from the department’s Web page listing its graduate students, where clearly the proportion of Chinese students (most or all of whom are likely foreign) is much higher at the MA level than the PhD level.

It should be clear that departments have incentive to lower admissions standards, especially for foreign students. Recently the California State Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a scathing report, accusing the UC system of lowering standards for nonresident students, most of whom are foreign students. The report’s subtitle, “[UC]s Admissions and Financial Decisions Have Disadvantaged California Resident Students,” caused quite a stir, but that is only half the story. The untold part is that graduates of the UCB Master’s program in Statistics, and a similar one at UC Davis, are getting jobs while equally qualified (and typically older) Americans are rejected by the same employers. In response to the Legislative Analyst’s findings, the State Assembly has recently passed a bill to reduce the number of international students — but only at the undergraduate level, thus no impact on the programs like UCB’s.

Thus the problems exist far beyond cheating, but what about that topic? In general, I find that most of the article to be accurate, but there are nuances that must be mentioned here. For example, the article doesn’t distinguish between undergraduate and grad students (I would surmise that the problem is mainly among the undergrads), and doesn’t distinguish between cheating on, say, term papers (plagiarism) and cheating on exams. The article quotes some people claiming that the foreign cheaters are often unaware of the term paper issue, but I guarantee you that they are keenly aware of the ethics of cheating on tests.

The WSJ, in analyzing the data from 14 major universities, found 5.1 incidents per 100 foreign students, vs. 1 per 100 domestic students. My own institution, UC Davis, had the “honor” of being at the top of the list, with a figure of more than 11 incidents per 100 foreign students. And by the way, at UCD, my own department, Computer Science, has the most incidents (foreign or domestic) among all academic units on campus, according to Student Judicial Affairs (SJA), the body that adjudicates cases in which a student is accused of dishonesty.

It must be kept in mind that the rates found by the WSJ are not high in absolute terms, though as pointed out by Wenhua Wu in the article, most cheaters do not get caught. But the interesting aspect is the fivefold disparity between the international and domestic students. Why the difference? Here is an interesting passage from today’s article:

Lanqing Wang, a Georgia Institute of Technology electrical-engineering student from Shanghai, who is distressed by the cheating he sees, said, “In China, it’s OK to cheat as long as you’re not caught.”

Paidi Shi, vice president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California, San Diego, disagreed that it was all right to cheat in her home country but said, “In China, our culture puts a lot of pressure on students. We are more likely to find a shortcut to get a good grade.”

Qingwen Fan, president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California, Davis, said some students in China get burned out by cramming in high school, and when they get to college “they want to enjoy life. They are busy with social stuff and everything they missed before. They start to cheat. They didn’t put in the time but they want to pass the test. That is kind of a cultural thing.”

So, who is right, Mr. Wang or Ms. Shi? Even the latter refers to “shortcuts,” and I have seen the attitude described by Wang a lot. This brings up the old (1946) book by anthropologist Ruth Benedict on East Asian (in her case, focusing on the Japanese) culture emphasizing shame rather than guilt, the latter supposedly being the basis of good behavior in the West. Benedict’s work has been widely discredited, and she paints with very broad strokes. Westerners certainly feel shame (just look at all those “perp walks” on the TV news) and Asians feel guilt. But there is a grain of truth to Benedict’s views, and my observations over the years indicate that Wang’s analysis jibes with those views.

In that sense, the issue goes beyond simply foreign-vs.-domestic status. Most Asian-American students are children of immigrants, the latter carrying their culture to the U.S. and presumably having some influence on the kids. The statistics on cheating at the University of Texas at Austin are rather startling in this regard: Ethnic-Asian students there are 1.89 times as likely to cheat than the average student, while for foreign students the figure is 1.80. Even assuming that the Asian foreign students are counted as ethnic-Asian, the figures indicate that there is a problem among the Asian-American students. Based on my experience both in encountering cheating in my courses and serving as a judge on SJA panels, I believe there is indeed a such an issue.

One interesting part of the article concerns the fact that if a foreign student is expelled from a U.S. school for cheating, his visa status is in grave peril. But a private agency can serve as a “fixer”:

Expulsion can be a business opportunity for Andrew Hang Chen, a Pittsburgh-based consultant who places Chinese students in U.S. colleges. If a foreign student is in danger of losing a visa, he can assist.

His company, WholeRen Education, charges $4,000 to help a student transfer to another U.S. school. The stakes are high because experience shows if a student has to return to China, he or she likely won’t ever go back to college.

“We have to act very, very quickly” to transfer the student to another U.S. college, Mr. Chen said. “When we get a call, we are counting by the hour.”

Last year, he said, a Chinese student at a large public university in New York sold test answers to a classmate for $2,000. Both had to leave the school. Mr. Chen said he got both into a U.S. community college, which they attended for a year and half before being allowed to return to the large university.

Given the extreme value many Chinese families place on their children getting an American education, and in many cases a green card, $4,000 is a bargain, I guess. But what does this say about the foreign student program?