An Unwarranted Attack

I was startled this morning to read in my Google Alerts newsfeed of a vicious and unwarranted attack in on Prof. Ron Hira of Howard University. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time for writing blog posts lately, but really, that article demands comment.

Ron is one of the top researchers on the H-1B work visa and offshoring of IT work. As noted in the article, he is frequently cited by the press, and has been called to testify before Congress on a number of occasions. But the author of the article seems to think that Ron’s work is tainted by presumed funding by a couple of organizations the author considers suspect — meaning, anti-immigration.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have strongly negative opinions of “hired guns,” academics who accept funding from entities that have a vested interest in an issue. But the entities cited by, the engineering society IEEE-USA and Democratic Party/labor aligned Economic Policy Institute, don’t fit the author’s anti-immigration description.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider IEEE-USA useless, indeed counterproductive, in addressing the problems of H-1B. They falsely portray the issue as one of “Intels Good, Infosyses Bad” and support proposals to grant automatic green cards to international students earning STEM degrees at U.S. schools. Such proposals would greatly harm U.S. citizens and permanent residents in STEM, but the point is that IEEE-USA’s policies are strongly PRO-immigration. To attack Ron as “anti-immigration” for for having been associated with the organization (which quickly distanced itself from Ron in response to is absurd.

The article describes EPI as being backed by George Soros. If true, this is an odd fact to cite in claiming EPI and Ron are “anti-immigration.” To my knowledge, Soros is strongly PRO-immigration, and my impression of EPI is that they are basically on the pro- side as well, if not as unquestioning as Soros. A few years ago, EPI kindly invited me to write a research paper for them (unpaid, I must add, as with all of my research papers). This turned out to be the most stringently-reviewed paper I’ve ever published, lots of skepticism among the EPI reviewers, who also took the “Intels Good, Infosyses Bad” stance.

Finally, that anonymous writer calls Ron a hypocrite for taking “anti-immigration” stances in spite of his parents and in-laws being immigrants. This is a common argument by the immigration lobby, but it makes no sense. We all have immigrant background, whether it be one generation back or ten (or hundreds in the case of the Native Americans). Where does one draw the line? Do I, as the son of an immigrant, not have “standing” to criticize the H-1B program while my daughter, two generations removed from my dad, would be free to question immigration policy? Oh wait, her mom is an immigrant, so scratch that, though if she has children, they can voice an opinion, right?

Seems impossible to have a rational, calm discussion on immigration these days.


Unnoticed Role Reversals

I’ve always been amazed at how many “unclothed emperors” pop up in political debates. Since no one else seems to be noticing, I’ll share a couple of current ones here.

First, consider a hot news item these days, involving Russian “elements” placing ads on Facebook to organize people interested in, inter alia, African-American civil rights. A lot of people in Congress, especially Democrats, are up in arms about this. But if you know the history of the U.S. civil rights movement, this should ring a bell. Martin Luther King and his crowd were constantly accused by the right wing of being supported by communists, meaning the Soviet Union. Now the left wing is making the same accusation, oddly enough.

Second, what about the tax reform proposal? Used to be that the Democrats worried about whether working-class people could buy a house. But if I understand things correctly, they are now worried that only working-class people — meaning, in this context, those taking out a mortgage of under $500,000 — would be given help. Ditto regarding deductability of property taxes. Basically, the Republicans want to help the working class and the Dems want to help upper-income white collar professionals.

And don’t get me started about the GOP’s obsession with repealing a health insurance system that was first proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and first actualized by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

Hired Guns

“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” We all know the phrase, and one area in which it is particularly important is academia.

In particular, most academics who write research in support of the H-1B work visa do receive funding from the industry and its allies.  Yet many will claim that the funding doesn’t impact the content of their work.

For example, my UC Davis colleague, economist Giovanni Peri, specializes in H-1B and immigration issues in general, and has become one of the nation’s top researchers on the “pro-” side of these issues. He does interesting work, but he too receives funding from the pro- side, as noted in an article earlier this year in The Atlantic (emphasis added):

Many of the immigration scholars regularly cited in the press have worked for, or received funding from, pro-immigration businesses and associations. Consider, for instance, Giovanni Peri, an economist at UC Davis whose name pops up a lot in liberal commentary on the virtues of immigration. A 2015 New York Times Magazine essay titled “Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant” declared that Peri, whom it called the “leading scholar” on how nations respond to immigration, had “shown that immigrants tend to complement—rather than compete against—the existing work force.” Peri is indeed a respected scholar. But Microsoft has funded some of his research into high-skilled immigration. And New American Economy paid to help him turn his research into a 2014 policy paper decrying limitations on the H-1B visa program. Such grants are more likely the result of his scholarship than their cause. Still, the prevalence of corporate funding can subtly influence which questions economists ask, and which ones they don’t. (Peri says grants like those from Microsoft and New American Economy are neither large nor crucial to his work, and that “they don’t determine … the direction of my academic research.”)

An article in Friday’s edition of the Gainesville Press reports,

A University of Florida professor, who has been a longtime defender of genetically modified foods, has sued the New York Times and one of its reporters for libel.

Kevin Folta, UF’s horticultural sciences chairman, filed a lawsuit against reporter Eric Lipton and the New York Times in September over a 2015 article he says unfairly portrayed him as a “covertly paid operative” for Monsanto, a company that produces genetically modified crops.

The lawsuit states the article falsely alleged Folta received “unrestricted grants” for research from Monsanto in exchange for his public support for GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, as one of several academics “recruited” to “advance Monsanto’s corporate goals instead of presenting legitimate, objective scientific results.”

Inside Higher Ed adds, echoing Peri,

Folta, who believes in the ability of genetically modified organisms to help meet global food demands, has said he accepted funds from Monsanto to hold science communication seminars but that the funds had no bearing on his scientific conclusions…

But these claims are clearly invalid. If one takes money from a given source and wants to continue receiving the funds, one cannot do work antagonizing the source. It’s that simple.

I don’t know anything on the University of Florida case, but the researcher’s claim that the money “had no bearing on [my] scientific conclusions” are disingenuous. He may well independently believe in the safety of GMOs, but funding like that could put a damper on whatever negative findings pop up in his work


California Outsourcing Bill: Read the Fine Print

One point I’ve been harping on in my comments on the H-1B work visa is that abuse of the visa pervades the entire industry, quite contrary to the common view that I call Intels Good, Infosyses Bad (IGIB). The latter refers to a view that the Indian outsourcing firms such as Infosys are the main abusers of the program while mainstream firms such as Intel use it responsibly. So for those readers who might get excited by a new bill just passed by both houses of the California state legislature, I suggest you consider the details. A victory maybe, but a small one.

The bill was sparked by news that the University of California, San Francisco, a medical branch of UC, had contracted to bring in foreign IT workers in the by-now-familiar pattern: The foreign workers would replace American UCSF employees, but not before the Americans trained the foreigners. Subsequently, after some experience on the job, the foreign workers would take much of the work overseas, where it would be performed from then on.

Later 60 Minutes ran a piece on the matter, of which I was quite critical. Now in defense of the show, I could say that at least their airing of the issue, however misleading, did get the state legislature to finally take action. The body had considered doing so in the early 2000s, but in the end they lost their resolve.

But as the old saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” Here is what the bill says:

The bill would specify that nothing in its provisions would preclude the University of California and the California State University from contracting with a contractor or subcontractor that utilizes workers in offshore operations in circumstances that do not directly result in the displacement of an employee of the University of California or the California State University.

In other words, the bill would allow UC and CSU to gradually phase out their American workers, provided it’s done by attrition. So the current workers (those remaining after last year’s firings) are fine, but as they retire, move to other employers (or likely even other UC/CSU jobs), Americans would not be able to apply to fill the openings, just as I have been warning.

As I have been saying, this stems from too much a focus on the word replace; whether a foreign worker is hired to replace an American or instead of an American, either way the result is that Americans don’t have access to that job. Indeed, UC President Janet Napolitano stated that UCSF would have been fine if it had just gradually phased out the Americans via attrition, rather than replacing them.

So the U.S. tech industry PR people, by deft use of one simple word, has been able to distort the entire conversation, resulting in what I regard as a mainly useless California bill.

I know some readers will disagree. “We finally got those guys!”, some will shout. But actually, those guys got YOU.

Khanna Hits H-1B Abuse (by the Infosyses)

In my various posts to this blog on the H-1B work visa, I have quite often brought up what I call the Intels Good, Infosyses Bad (IGIB) view that is so common in the H-1B debate. This refers to the perception that the Indian outsourcing firms such as Infosys are the main abusers of the visa program, while the mainstream U.S. firms like Intel use H-1B responsibly. This perception is demonstrably false; see a summary in for example my Huffington Post op-ed piece.

The tech industry PR firms have been pushing this false IGIB message as a means of deflecting attention from its own bad behavior, and they make several seemingly plausible but misleading arguments, the biggest of which is the point that the average H-1B salary paid by Intels is higher than that of the Infosyses. This is true but quite misleading. The Intels hire H-1Bs of a higher quality for more sophisticated jobs, so of course they pay more. But the key point is that the Intels are still paying their workers less than they should, given the qualifications of those workers. I’ve often made the analogy of getting 20% of the price of a Toyota Corolla vs. a 20% discount on a Toyota Camry; one is getting a bargain either way.

Another reason the IGIB pitch sells so well (sadly, even with the immigration “restrictionist” organizations, such as Progressives for Immigration Reform) is that the Intels cover their tracks more deftly than the Infosyses. The latter (or more precisely, their clients such as Disney) openly replace Americans by H-1Bs, whereas the former conduct large layoffs and eventually hire H-1Bs for what basically the old jobs. And though the Intels do hire some Americans, mainly for the less technical jobs, they fill many jobs with H-1Bs that could be filled by qualified Americans.

Finally, the Intels hire their H-1Bs mostly as foreign students on U.S. campuses, whereas the Infosyses import directly from India. This somehow is taken to mean the Intels are acting responsibly, the students being pitched as “the best and the brightest,” but actually, the data show that the average quality of the foreign students is somewhat below that of their American peers.

Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna expressed the Intels Good, Infosyses view in my VOA debate with him back in June, and has recently been making that same point to the Indian press (don’t try finding this in the U.S. press). He should know better. Of all the points I made in the VOA debate, the one he and I discussed the most was exactly this point, namely that the Intels are just as culpable as the Infosyses. From my report here on the debate:

A few years ago, about a dozen of us researchers visited Google, and met with a senior engineering manager and an HR person…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…

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.

So Khanna, in now continuing to couch the H-1B issue as in IGIB terms, does indeed know better than to make such a claim. Given how emotional he became in the VOA debate, and indeed in several Twitter posts against me in the days following, he can hardly say that he has never heard anyone point out that the Intels are bad actors in the H-1B realm too.

Indeed, if Khanna really cared about the truth behind H-1B in terms of the Intels, he would get to the bottom of the issue and determine for himself whether the Intels are so angelic. He demanded in the debate that I give him the names of the people at Google who stated the firm prefers to hire foreign workers, and I told him I had the name and contact information of the HR person at the meeting. Of course, he never followed up to get the information from me. Or he could read the NRC report, commissioned by Congress. Or he could read the Web page of prominent immigration attorney David Swaim, as I mentioned during the debate. Or even more simply, he could talk to any current or former engineer in Silicon Valley sponsored by an employer for a green card. Really, Mr. Khanna, this is hardly a secret.

But of course, it is not in his interest to do so. Silicon Valley firms are his most important supporters. Suppose he were to take me up on my offer to connect him with that Google HR person, and she were to confirm it. What would Khanna then do? He would do nothing, of course, and would continue to preach IGIB. So, he’s better off not calling Google, not reading the NRC report and so on. The saying “Ignorance is bliss” applies perfectly here, doesn’t it?


On Monday evening I had the honor of being invited to speak to the San Gabriel Valley branch (“lodge”) of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. The group is the oldest Asian-American civil rights organization in the U.S., a little humbling for me, and it was especially nice in that I grew up in the SGV, what is now a largely Asian area stretching for 20 miles, beginning just east of downtown Los Angeles. I must say that this was one of the warmest, friendliest and indeed most fun groups I’ve ever addressed, and I was greatly impressed by their commitment to serving the community.

I was asked to talk about H-1B, the RAISE Act (immigration reform bill endorsed by the Trump administration),  and Affirmative Action in college admissions. At the last minute, DACA was added to the topic list. I protested that I had no expertise in the matter, but did speculate that Pres. Trump’s putting the DACA ball back in Congress’ court might give some momentum to the RAISE Act, which most DC people had assumed would not even make it to committee. It’s conceivable, I said, that RAISE could become part of the negotiations in forming DACA legislation. Well, what do you know! This afternoon Reuters reported that Trump wants to link DACA with RAISE.

In my talk, I stated that I personally don’t like RAISE, as I dislike elitist point systems-based immigration policies in general, but that I do support RAISE’s provisions to roll back two of the most heavily-used family-based sections of immigration law. Specifically, the bill would eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens (typically naturalized) to sponsor their parents and adult siblings for immigration. I stressed the fact that neither of these parts of immigration policy is in the national interest, and that a number of members of both parties have in fact expressed support for eliminating them, as RAISE would do.

I knew that those attending my talk would immediately understand the motivation for eliminating the ability to sponsor elderly parents — welfare usage is rampant in this immigration group, in fact virtually standard in the Chinese case. There is cash in the form of SSI, medical care through Medicaid, and miscellaneous items such as subsidized senior housing. I knew that when I said,”Just within a radius of only five miles from here, there are probably at least three or four large senior housing complexes, populated entirely by elderly [Chinese] immigrants,” the audience would know exactly what I was referring to, and would be sympathetic. After all, they don’t like their tax money going to such things — benefits for people who’ve never worked a day in the U.S. — any more than the rest of us do.

But I was less sure that I’d get a positive response to pointing out that the ability to sponsor adult siblings, the so-called Fourth Preference, makes no sense for the national interest either. It leads to chain migration, in which the people at the beginning of the chain have no relation to those just a few links down, and (as the authors of RAISE point out) with no redeeming positive gain to the nation.

Rep. Judy Chu, whose district includes large parts of the San Gabriel Valley, objected when the reform bill crafted by the bipartisan “Gang of 8” proposed eliminating these categories. Chu stressed how important it is to “keep families together.” But if family reunification is so important, why did some of the family members dis-unite from the others by coming to the U.S. in the first place? As I wrote in my 1996 Senate testimony,

Though the idea of reuniting long-lost loved ones is emotionally appealing, the fact is that most immigrants making use of family-reunification categories come to the U.S. primarily for economic reasons, rather than for the putative goal of rejoining family members.

This was noted, for example, in the analysis given by Louisiana State University professor Min Zhou in Chinatown, Temple University Press, 1992, pp.50-54. Dr. Zhou’s point is that people who want to immigrate to the U.S. go about finding some route to achieving that goal, and that family reunification happens to be such a route. One person she interviewed, for instance, says “People are very smart, they know how to get here quickly through the family connections.” Zhou notes that “Immigration opportunities for prospective immigrants would be close to zero without family or kinship connections.” In other words, though the philosophy of immigration law is that one immigrates in order to rejoin one’s family members, many are doing the opposite–rejoining their family members in order to immigrate.

Actually, people in Congress have been trying to eliminate the Fourth Preference since way back in 1986, if not earlier, but have always been blocked by Chinese-American organizations — such as that very same Chinese American Citizens Alliance. But I seemed to be getting looks of agreement from the audience when I made these points, and no one disagreed.  Later one gentleman did say something in opposition privately, but that was all.

I regard this as quite significant. If even the rank-and-file members of this organization, with its history of fiercely defending the Fourth Preference, see that it plays no national-interest role and is in fact widely abused, maybe this anomaly in immigration law can finally be fixed.

What I am saying, in other words, is that while DACA+RAISE is probably a political nonstarter, pairing DACA with some rollback of these inappropriate parts of immigration law might be achievable. Note that RAISE itself would still allow the elderly parents to come to the U.S., but only as long-term visitors, rather than as immigrants. The is the Canadian approach, and should be taken here. Maybe some compromise could also be worked out for the Fourth Preference, giving the siblings special green cards that are not convertible to citizenship, and grandfathering or even fast-tracking those already in the queue.

Stranger things have happened in DC before.

University Rankings, Tiger Moms and (a Bit on) Affirmative Action

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported on the release of the latest rankings of world universities. My focus here will mainly be on the rise of the Chinese universities in these rankings, but I will also comment on the rankings themselves.

The article notes that

…the cumulative reputation of Chinese research institutions is swelling. In the latest ranking, seven Chinese schools cracked the top 200. In 2014, there were just two. Peking University and Tsinghua University topped Chinese schools, ranking 27th and 30th, respectively.

However, the author pours cold water on that achievement:

The rise of Chinese universities also comes as the Chinese Communist Party has invested heavily in research universities. Elizabeth Perry, a professor at Harvard and expert on China, said the Chinese are actively “gaming” the system.

“They are hiring an army of postdocs whose responsibility is to produce articles,” she said. “They are changing the nature of a university from an educational institution to basically a factory that is producing what these rankings reward.”

Xia Qiong, a professor at Wuhan University in central China, also criticized what she described as an excessive fixation on publication metrics in Chinese universities.

This is true. The Chinese government has been pressing its universities to produce more research papers ever since the government discovered that the world rankings (include a much-respected one conducted yearly by China’s own Shanghai Jiaotong University) are based heavily on research output. And from what I hear, it’s actually worse than what Perry says, as it is sheer emphasis on quantity, not quality.

On one level, all this might be dismissed as one of the more excessive examples of the importance of Face, 面子 in East Asian cultures. Though that might be considered an overworked stereotype — we all care about Face to some degree — it is indeed a big factor in this case of university rankings.

I would relate it to the “Harvard or Bust” obsession that many Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have, the Tiger Mom syndrome. That is partly due to a lack of understanding of the fact that one’s academic pedigree is of less central importance to career success in the U.S. compared to China. But as many Chinese-Americans will tell you, there is often a big 面子 factor at work too — “keeping up with the Zhous” may entail getting your kids into universities at least as prestigious as what your neighbors accomplished.

This gives rise to thriving cottage industries on achieving that Harvard goal. Though of course such entrepreneurs come in all ethnicities, the Chinese ones are especially numerous and lucrative, as I reported in my 2014 blog posting, “Gaming the College Admissions System, Big Data Style.”

It has also given rise to several lawsuits spearheaded by Chinese immigrants opposing the use of Affirmative Action (AA) in college admissions, and even opposition to finer racial categorization in state data collection, the latter being viewed as a “slippery slope” to the former. (I disagree with the anti-AA lawsuits, i.e. I support AA, and will write a detailed blog post on this when I have time.)

The term gaming the system, in both the WSJ article and my blog posting, is not very flattering. It puts the Chinese government in a bad light, and probably creates resentment among U.S. college admissions officers. In that sense, both the Chinese government and Chinese-immigrants’ kids lose.

But that is minor, compared to the bigger pictures in these two cases. China is really harming its economic potential by obsessing over quantity instead of quality, both in research and teaching. The complaint by Chinese academics that their graduates suffer from the phenomenon of “high scores, low ability” speaks volumes. The Tiger Moms are obstructing their children’s potential as well, not only economically for the same reason but also socially and even psychologically. Actually, the counterproductive nature of Tiger Mom-ism was the subject of the first post I made in this blog.

What about those university rankings themselves? As a native of Los Angeles and an alumnus of UCLA, I ought to be proud that the latest rankings have UCLA ranked above UC Berkeley. But it is simply not true, at least for the fields I have expertise in, math, statistics and computer science. Any effort to develop formulas to determine rankings is doomed to failure, I believe, and even then the practical value of rankings is questionable. Actually I think the old-fashioned method of surveying academics for their seat-of-the-pants ratings works fairly well, albeit with a time lag. But even the most careful, meaningful ranking system will be gamed, including to some degree in the U.S.

Well, hey, all you Tiger Moms out there. Whoa, Harvard is now ranked only Number 6 in the world! Time for “Oxbridge or Bust”?