Lion’s Den III: VOA Silicon Valley Debate with Rep. Khanna

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 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 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 point out this similarity in their positions, 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.



39 thoughts on “Lion’s Den III: VOA Silicon Valley Debate with Rep. Khanna

  1. Great article, Norm. I think the “straw man” is the most popular participant in almost all the debates out there! He seems to have a seat reserved and a “hot mic” on every issue — climate, immigration, health care, crime, race, you name it.

    It’s a clear sign that most debaters would rather be “right” and “correct”. It’s also a sign that most debaters have a very low view of the intelligence of the average American, and are hoping to use emotional and “obvious” statements instead of exposing the subtleties and the nuances of these issues.


  2. There is a fight over framing the very narrative of immigration discussion.
    Anti-immigration (as in retaining current immigration numbers and policy) is cast as anti-immigrant (personally against an immigrant/immigrants). Because even the very discussion of policy is threatening to status quo, a strong arm in record profits.
    The politicians have ducked this discrepancy by throwing out a generic “immigration reform”, to be interpreted as however the constituent sees “reform” to be. But discrepancy there is, which spiked in significance during the presidential campaign, and exacerbated with the conversant connectivity of the internet.


    • >> Anti-immigration (as in retaining current immigration numbers and policy) is cast as anti-immigrant (personally against an immigrant/immigrants).

      Anti-immigration != retaining current policy; status quo is anti-american (worker)

      And likewise, pro-immigration != pro-immigrant

      >> The politicians have ducked this discrepancy by throwing out a generic “immigration reform”, to be interpreted as however the constituent sees “reform” to be.

      Well put.


  3. It is good that Khanna was willing to at least discuss this with you. Remember when Honda simply dismissed the programmers guild as bigots.

    I don’t feel bad that Honda lost his job to a “tech savvy” and younger candidate. Maybe he now knows now how it feels to be replaced?


    • But Khanna pretty much accused me of being a bigot.

      When the organizer of the event first approached me, she said that she thought that Khanna and I were pretty much on the same page. I disagreed, but maybe Khanna thought this. Or he thought it would be easy to shoot down what he assumed was a Trump supporter.


      • Not sure what is better/worse?

        Brushed off AND accused of being a bigot by Honda


        Being called a bigot In public BUT being allowed to wipe up the floor with Khanna in front of an audience.

        I like the latter. Maybe Khanna underestimated you and thought you would show up with a Make America Great hat and have difficulty putting your thoughts together?


        • Let me emphasize in the strongest possible terms: I was very impressed with Rep. Khanna in terms of his idealism, rare for a politician. His shocking weak point is that he is guilty of appallingly simplistic thinking, plus he simply had not done his homework. I would hope that I showed him the other side of things, and will have at least a small impact on his thinking.


  4. Re Honda – It will be interesting to see the “immigrant” and “minority” coalitions break apart as different groups are driven by self-interest, different cultures, philosophies, priorities and competitions which also occurred between European immigrant groups 100 to 200 years ago.


    • If you ask mainstream African-Americans, they will generally be pretty negative about immigration, as they feel their community is harmed. But their “leaders” feel that they have no choice but to support immigration and the immigrant-dominated groups.


  5. Norm, wonder if you recently ever heard of a segment of IT development where the hiring mgmt openly discouraged H-1B hiring? I’m not talking about national security or citizen only projects.

    In the mid-1990s, IT mags and co-workers talked about the hot SAP market. Proven SAP developers and installers could make $100 to $200 per hour. There were stories of $200/hr SAP programmers walking off lucrative contracts for $250/hour competing gigs. One SAP programmer was hired to a contract in May and worked every day past the end of the year with Christmas being the only day off.

    Wonder if there is any current IT segment where there was a need to do highly detailed, complex installation and development of sophisticated leading-edge software? Something where mediocre quality is not tolerated and attention to detail is required. Staff has to be able to hit the ground running, match a stellar resume and be a consistent high performer.


  6. Perhaps a less divisive way to frame the H1-B discussion would be in terms of “Labor Protections” instead of a debate on (non/)immigration. A great nation is more than an economy and therefore must provide strong labor protections for its working class. A profitable company should not be able to arbitrarily layoff experienced IT professionals regardless of who (what?) they are being replaced with; non-immigrants, fresh college grads or bots.

    On a minor side note; “those who advocate disbanding the H-1B program,” is not a strawman. This is a position strongly held a large (perhaps unorganized) section of Americans. Just ask the first commenter on this post.


    • What I wrote in my post was,

      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.

      Hiring an H-1B to replace an American is no worse than hiring an H-1B instead of and American.


  7. You were courageous to walk into the lion’s den. They don’t want to hear that minority women with CS degrees voted for Trump, but I did, for many of the reasons you cite. They don’t want to hear that immigration and trade and even climate change were reasons as well. I’m just another deplorable in flyover country and I must be a conservative too, but I’m not, I am a moderate at best. The attitudes you describe on the panel were enough to push me to the other side. I’m hoping for a total ban on all immigration until things get better for us deplorables.

    If the San Jose Mercury News thinks I don’t exist, let me know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Note again that everyone in the “lion’s den” was polite and friendly to me. The ONLY hostility I got was from that San Jose Mercury News camerawoman.

      Now, concerning that camerawoman and her video, I asked a contact at the Mercury to check whether they would be willing to put the video online. He did check, and told me that for reasons unclear to him, they are not willing to do this.


  8. Ro Khanna has always been a light-weight. That’s probably why the Sand Hill Bandits recruited him and bought him a Congressional Seat.

    For the record, I am in favor of abolishing the H1-B Visa Program. I think that it is hopelessly corrupt, and that any such program whose primary goal is to reduce wages is illegitimate.

    I do not think that it is possible to reform H1-B: I want it dead.

    A lot of people agree with me. This was my primary reason for running for Congress, and I won the primary twice. Each time, tens of thousands of people voted for me.

    There are a lot of people who live in the Palo Alto area who think that H1-B needs to be abolished. The fact that they are being stifled by the Main-Stream Media does not make them wrong, and it certainly does not mean that they do not exist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In my experience, once people are told what H-1B really does, most of them are strongly against it, no matter what their political viewpoint in general. A big exception is academia, and another is the press.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am hearing from people of the Indian Community who are beginning to realize that the H-1B program is jeopardizing their future as well.

        One even asked me to create this page to help support my work and stated that he thought it would be funded asap.

        It hasn’t, but we are all beginning to realize that we are all in this scam together (h-1b, gc, citizen) and that it is up to us to find a solution because our business community, government and even academia seem only interested in playing the cost difference between countries leaving the displaced with nowhere to turn.


  9. You are being more generous to Ro Khanna than I would be. Your description of the debate is a repeat of exchanges I’ve and others had on major pro-democratic party sites (until this year, I was a life long democrat, and no did not become a republican). Arguing that H1B is a failed jobs program as an economic issue quickly morphs into personal attacks of hating immigrants, racism, etc etc. Happens every time. Ro Khanna was ill prepared for the debates because he was too used to playing “identify politics” which he assumed was enough to vanquish any opponent.

    A note about the question from the camera person. It is unconsciously steeped in right polemics against public education and “populist eugenics “. For decades right wingers have attacked public education and infused people with disdain for public education and teachers. High tech has used those decades of polemic to say “see, we need these smart Asian students as our school systems are horrible”. In terms of “popular eugenics” various themes intermix on both right and left such as “white people are smarter than black people, but Asians are smarter than white people”.


    • “Ro Khanna was ill prepared for the debates because he was too used to playing ‘identify politics’ which he assumed was enough to vanquish any opponent”: Very well put!


    • Public education has been attacked, not just by conservatives, because of the absurdities imposed by the teachers unions. I am a product of the public schools of NYC. I am also the last generation to have received a reasonably good education through that system. I know this because I have a child who later went through that system as well.

      When Albert Shanker said he didn’t care about students because they didn’t pay union dues, he changed the course of public education in America forever. He made it acceptable for teachers to not care about performance, and they don’t, you can see it in every measure of education in America. The result of the triumph of teachers unions in America can be seen in the final product it produces.


  10. Hello everyone,

    Interesting article from CIS referring another article:

    The article that the CIS post refers to:

    Note to Norm: It would be interesting to know what do you think of this Norm.
    One thing that seems obvious to me from this:

    “Rhodes began poring over applications for H-1B visas looking for contact information for potential clients. Out of curiosity, he began pulling documents whenever a company showed up in the news for displacing American workers. The information was available on each individual application, but absent from the program-wide data that can be easily downloaded from the website of the Department of Labor. So Rhodes wrote software that scraped thousands of applications and fed them into his own spreadsheets.”

    That right there, is purely by lobbyist sneaky design intended for a nice cover up. Why should the “program-wide” data from DOL be missing the client contact info? Makes it a bit harder for statisticians and other interested parties to calculate the extent of numbers involved in their little shell game.


    • I agree that there are some interesting points there (mostly not new), but for reasons I’ve given so often, I generally do not discuss the outsourcing firms.


  11. Nice articles thank you Anon Programmer, it explains a lot. In 2016 Intel released their demographics (Male 75.2%, Female 24.8*; White 53.3%, Asian 32.8%, Black 3.5%, Hispanic 8.4%, Other 2%) but the numbers just don’t make sense. Asians 32.8% includes all Asians, East and South and I can tell you from personal experience that the population of South Asians alone is at least 30% in Folsom possibly higher, it was not uncommon to be on teams where the population of South Asian alone was 50% or more, so this data was very confusing until now. Now it makes more sense, Intel is only counting their H1B, not the HCL or Infosys H1Bs so those individuals aren’t counted. Tricky.

    Norm; something I’ve never understood about the statistics, is that it’s often used by Intel to say there’s “still too many white guys” but aren’t there also some omissions here. For example, they pull this data to show they aren’t discriminating by race or gender, but they don’t release age, which is also protected, it would be interesting to see the Age data. And, if I have my facts right in the 2010 US Census (White 72.4%, Black 12.6%, Asian 4.8%, Native American .9%, Hawaiians .2%, Two or more 2.9% and Some other 6.2%) the data shows that the Intel data doesn’t match the US population. If the White population is 72.4% isn’t 53.3% low? And why doesn’t the Intel Asian of 32.8% nearly 7 times higher than the National population cause any concerns, wouldn’t that indicate that Intel favors Asians over others?

    I’m a novice when it comes to the statistics btw. Maybe you could shed some light?


    • I see what they do, they don’t compare against US Demographics, they compare against “US Workforce REPRESENTATION as of December 2015.” So instead of comparing against the US population, they compare against a representation which is significantly different than the US population. Still feels like some slight of hand going on.


    • As you said in your other post, it really depends on what denominator is appropriate.

      For Intel, for instance, the proper question might be, among “qualified” EE applicants, how do those numbers break down racially/ethnically, vs. the percentages who are actually hired? An even better breakdown would be by visa type (USC/LPR vs. F-1 etc.). And even that would not necessarily be relevant. What if, say, they hire 10% of the American applicants (USC/LPR) but only 2% of the foreign applicants? Does that mean they’re OK? Intel CLAIMS to give hiring priority to USCs/LPRs, but I think most of us don’t believe that.


    • Jeff L wrote, “Asian of 32.8% nearly 7 times higher than the National population”

      Asians are the model minority. One reason for their success is their small population in the United States. If Asians where to make up a large percentage of the population, then their success as a group would be reduced. There would not be enough high paying STEM jobs for them.

      I claim that the H-1B program was created to flood the market with mostly Asians workers and their American born children. This would in turn reduce the economic success of Asian Americans in the United States.

      The H-1B program has a greater harmful effect on Asian Americans (US citizens),especially older Asian Americans, than any other group because Asian Americans disproportionately hold STEM jobs and STEM degrees. Most persons of Asian decent with undergrad US STEM degrees are US citizens and not international students.

      Also, “white workers are two and a half times more likely then their Asian counterparts to serve as executives at major tech companies.” This is the “bamboo ceiling”.

      Something similar happened decades ago with agricultural workers. American farmers where angry that the mostly latino workforce could exert power by quitting their jobs or protesting in the middle of a harvest and letting the crops rot in the fields. The farmers vowed, “Never again”. The agricultural guest worker program was born and still continues today. The H-1B program is the latest attempt to crush a minority group.


      • I don’t think the H-1B program was created for anything other than cheap labor. The Indians, for instance, were not the major force then (1990) that they are today. As to the claimed “bamboo ceiling,” the question is whether the East Asians tend to have the verbal abilities needed (or perceived to be needed) for management; the South Indians are doing fine.


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