I’ve twice written before about being invited into “the lion’s den” to talk about H-1B. In the first case, the meeting bizarrely turned out to be a planning session for Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us immigration lobbying group, and the second was the annual meeting of the Deans’ Council of the American Society for Engineering Education. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was treated with friendship and respect by FWD.us and hostilely by the deans.
Last week I was invited to speak as a panel discussant on H-1B in the newly-opened Silicon Valley bureau of Voice of America, with the venue being the San Francisco office of the VC firm 500 Startups. My main debate opponent was Rep. Ro Khanna, newly elected to Congress last year in a Silicon Valley district. He has been described, accurately, as “the tech community’s chosen candidate.” Of course, that means he supports the “Intels Good, Infosyses Bad” view, contending that the firms that hire foreign students from U.S. university campuses are using the program responsibly while the Indian outsourcing firms abuse it, quite counter to my view that all the firms are culpable.
Also on the panel was Kamran Elahian, but he said very little specifically on H-1B, focusing instead on his views as an immigrant tech entrepreneur.
The host of the event was Michelle Quinn, the new bureau chief. Also present were Amanda Bennett, the national VOA director, and Sandy Sugiwara, the national deputy director. Bennett, by the way is an especially highly prominent journalist, e.g. winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a captivating TED speaker. Jim Fry, managing editor was there too. I enjoyed chatting with them before and after the event, all highly impressive people. Reporter Chu Wu was quite professional and patient in interviewing me in Chinese after the event.
This forum was unique! To my knowledge — based on the nearly 25 years I’ve been writing about H-1B — this is the ONLY public debate between a politician and a researcher on the topic that has ever been held. All three panelists made points that are not often covered. The entire debate was videorecorded, and I am hoping it will be made public. (More on this later.)
These days, many of those with immigrant connections use the word immigrant as a showstopper. This can be very effective with white liberal audiences — I say that as a white liberal myself, thus not pejoratively — especially if the debate opponent will be portrayed as anti-immigrant or worse. Khanna clearly came into the debate assuming that I was a Trump supporter (he did praise me when I later mentioned that I voted for Bernie as a write-in, but it clearly startled him).
So when Khanna and Elahian, in their opening remarks, emphasized their immigrant connections (one the son of immigrants, the other an immigrant himself), I felt compelled to get the conversation back to the real issue, H-1B. I said (here and below, I believe the quotes are rather close to verbatim),
My father was an immigrant, as is my wife. I’ve been living in immigrant households my entire life, with all the trappings — non-English languages, “weird” foods and so on. We speak Cantonese at home as our primary language. So, there is no point in we panelists trying to “out-immigrant” each other. Let’s stay on topic.
Khanna then said, “H-1B has problems, but I strongly oppose Trump’s reform proposal.” I objected, “Wait a minute, Trump doesn’t have a proposal yet.” Khanna responded, “Yes, he does. Look at Trump’s executive order on the topic,” but I said, “No, not true. All the executive order does is direct DOJ to merely study the problem, no proposal yet.” He was then silent.
I was very disappointed. Clearly, Khanna had not done his homework, with the result that he was “strongly opposed” to a proposal that didn’t exist. I felt that this reduced the potential to have a serious discussion.
The irony here, though, is that Trump’s repeatedly-stated position during the election campaign, going back to 2015, is exactly that of Khanna’s: they both contend that the hiring of foreign students is the “good” use of H-1B. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to say this, partly because I was a bit stunned by Khanna’s gaffe on the Trump executive order. (I did make this point during the Chinese interview after the debate; see below.)
It was also disappointing that Khanna liked to argue by setting up strawmen. He talked several times of “those who advocate disbanding the H-1B program,” but no one has taken this stance, among researchers, immigration reform groups and so on.
At several points in the debate, Khanna emphasized his support for the Durbin/Grassley H-1B reform bill. I replied that although I supported previous versions of the bill (and in fact used to be consulted by Grassley’s main staffer), I am opposed to the current bill. He didn’t ask me why, and again, due to the flow of the conversation, I never had a chance to explain. (See my blog post on this.)
In any event, this led to another Khanna gaffe, in which he claimed “Durbin-Grassley would have passed long ago, but the anti-immigrant groups opposed it.” What Khanna didn’t know is that those groups support Durbin-Grassley. And calling them “anti-immigrant” is dirty pool in my view, definitely not accurate.
It would be easy to dismiss Khanna’s errors by saying that he ought to spend a little less time listening to tech CEOs (he greeted many of the entrepreneurs at the event warmly, by name) and more time listening to U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are being harmed by the H-1B program. But my impression is that it is much more than that, an ideological issue.
This became apparent when I brought up my EPI paper, in which I showed that the foreign students who become H-1B are actually somewhat weaker on average than their American peers. Khanna was profoundly disturbed by my saying this. This really took me aback, as he started making connections with Charles Murray. I told him this was offensive, and he said he wasn’t saying that I shared Murray’s views but that my research would be used by the Murray-ites. He went on at some length on this, referring to my research as “based on only a small amount of data” — again, the fact that he hadn’t even heard of my research until a few seconds earlier didn’t stop him from belittling it — and that it was unethical and dangerous for me to make this work public. I replied,
You’re distorting and flipping over what I said. The fact that the former foreign students are somewhat weaker could be due to lots of things. Maybe the best Chinese and Indian students do not come to the U.S. But in any case this is serious research, building on top of previous work by well-known economists, such as at the University of Michigan and Rutgers. EPI is a think tank allied with the Democratic Party, founded by people such as Robert Reich. The foreign workers are displacing U.S. workers, and if in addition they are of lower quality, this is a major national interest question.
Khanna’s view of my work as somehow being akin to eugenics is ironic, because I have long sided firmly with Nurture in the Nature vs. Nurture debate. I don’t believe genetics plays a big role in intelligence. But part of Nurture is cultural, and I do believe that the rote memory style of education in East Asia does produce, on average, less creative, less insightful people. This is hardly a revolutionary notion; every single East Asian government — China, Japan, Korea — has fretted about this, and tried to remedy it. I mentioned that I have strongly advocated facilitating the immigration of “the best and the brightest” (some of whom are from East Asia). But as Khanna was already visibly upset by the topic, I chose not to pursue it further.
Unfortunately, he was just as upset when I brought up an incident with Google about which I’ve written before. A few years ago, about a dozen of us researchers visited Google, and met with a senior engineering manager and an HR person. (The latter, by the way, was a former engineer herself, now working in HR to find good project placements for new hires.) During the course of the meeting, the Googlers volunteered the information that Google prefers to hire foreign students over Americans of the same quality, because the lengthy green card process renders the foreigners immobile — they don’t dare jump to another employer, as it would require starting the immigration process all over again. Google told us that they can’t keep the Americans from leaving (they had unsuccessfully tried doling out stock options slowly over time), but that the foreign workers are stuck.
I mentioned this to make the point that the “Intels” abuse the foreign worker programs too. (The “Infosyses” only rarely sponsor workers for green cards.) I pointed out that the abuse of this type was discussed in the 2001 NRC study, commissioned by Congress, and has been the subject of complaints by Immigration Voice, a lobbying organization of foreign workers waiting for green cards. I should have added the Web page of David Swaim, an immigration attorney who design Texas Instruments’ immigration policy and now is in private practice. On that Web site, Swaim openly urges employers to give hiring preference to foreign students over Americans, in order to exploit their immobility.
Khanna reacted quite sharply to this, his voice rising. “This is a very serious charge! You have no proof! Who at Google said this? What are their names?” I replied that I had stated this publicly before without objection from Google, and then said, “I’ll give you the name of the HR person, who by the way is now at Facebook. You should call Google.” But of course he did not take me up on the offer.
I must interject here that this was definitely not political posturing on Khanna’s part. He was genuinely disturbed by my EPI study, which offended his egalitarian ethos (which I share), and both the study and the Google incident seemed to contradict the very core of his belief in the glories of the Silicon Valley. I too think the Valley is pretty cool, but it does have warts, as Judge Lucy Koh has found. (I think Judge Koh is pretty cool too.)
Elahian spoke mainly about his experience as an immigrant, including one very touching story about the first exam he took as a college student in the U.S. He had outscored every other student, by such a wide margin that the professor gave him an F, on the grounds that he must have cheated, adding that “All you foreign students cheat.” I responded:
I was quite touched by Kamran’s story of being unjustly accused of cheating, and the professor’s claim that all the foreign students cheat. But that is exactly the subtext of the scapegoating of the Indian outsourcing firms. The claim made by the industry lobbyists that the Intels use H-1B responsibly while the Infosyses abuse it carries the subtle message that “Only the Indians would cheat.”
Surprisingly, I didn’t get much pushback from the audience during the debate. The one hostile question was rather bizarre — coming from the cameraperson! There was a woman at the back of the room filming the event. During the Q&A, she raised her hand, waving it vigorously. A bit odd for a camera operator to ask a question, but of course that’s fine. She said, “U.S. kids do terribly in international test scores in math and science, so don’t we need H-1Bs?” I think she also meant it as refuting my EPI study. In reply, I first noted, “Educators have criticized those scores, as there are issues of whether a nation includes its lower class,” and in response the cameraperson made a face, disgusted at my comment. I then said, “The same companies that cite those test scores as a reason to hire H-1Bs are busy laying off lots of Americans who had been great at math and science when they were kids” — at which she made a face again. 🙂 I have written on this topic of the test scores before.
I had thought that this cameraperson worked for VOA, but it turns out that she is from the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group. I am hoping that the Merc will put the video of the debate online. (Update, June 8: My contact at the paper replied that “…it looks like the video was essentially scrapped as a standalone report, but there’s apparently a possibility that parts of it will be used in coverage of Rep. Khanna. Not sure the reason(s) for this…”)
After the event, I was interviewed in Chinese by VOA reporter Chu Wu. Though I do speak Cantonese daily, my Mandarin is weak. I expressed to Wu my concern that I might not understand some of her questions. In fact, VOA Director Bennett, a former WSJ Beijing bureau chief, speaks much better Chinese than I do. But it went fairly well. For you Chinese speakers out there, you can view the entire interview, about 20 minutes in length online.
All in all, quite a stimulating event.