Some of you may be a little startled to know I’ve been writing about the H-1B work visa and related EB green card series for…are you ready?…27 years! Yes, since 1993. My activities during that time have included writing research papers, testifying to Congress, and so on.
The only real “reforms” made over the years have been in the direction of making things even worse, accompanied of course by “feel good” changes that look pro-worker but in reality always end up with business as usual.
So I do have some perspective on the issue, and to me, a June 24 piece in The New Republic (TNR) shows vividly how H-1B/EB will never be reformed in any meaningful way. The conversation will always be sidestracked by a distracting, unwarranted and unproductive scapegoating of the Indian outsourcing firms, which I refer to as the “Infosyses,” typified by a large firm of that name. By contrast, the “Intels,” meaning any firm, large or small, that hires most of its H-1Bs from the international student populations at US universities, are presented as using the H-1B/EB programs responsibly. Many of you know that I refer to this portrayal as “Intels Good, Infosyses Bad” (IGIB).
As I’ve explained numerous times, e.g. in my HuffPo op-ed, the Intels are just as culpable as the Infosyses, arguably actually more so. But the Intels, armed with the best PR people and lobbyists, have found that IGIB scapegoating is highly effective. And by the way, I’ve gotten the sense many times that this scapegoating is meant to be taken as a racial “dog whistle.”
The TNR article uses the IGIB argument, and unwittingly shows the argument to be empty. Here are the two main points made:
- The Infosyses hire H-1Bs and “rent” them out to mainstream US firms, unlike the Intels, who tend to hire H-1Bs whom they themselves will employ.
- The Infosyses usually don’t sponsor their H-1Bs for green cards, while the Intels do.
Both claims are correct — and yet neither claim justifies scapegoating the Infosyses and glorifying the Intels.
Yes, the Infosyses rent their H-1Bs to other firms. SO WHAT? Nothing terrible about that. The ostensible reason the H-1B program was enacted was to remedy temporary labor shortages. The fact that some US firms (banks, insurance companies, HMOs) find it easier to get temporary H-1B workers through an Infosys does not counter the purpose of H-1B at all.
And what about the Infosyses not engaging in green card sponsorship? Again, SO WHAT? Again, the intended purpose of H-1B is to remedy temporary labor shortages, not as a path to permanent residence. Yes, the Intels use such a path, but the notion that the Infosyses are somehow Evil because they don’t do so is absurd.
On the contrary: Green card sponsorship enables the Intels to actually be bigger abusers of foreign tech workers than the Infosyses. It renders the workers de facto indentured servants, technically able to move around freely in the labor market but in reality trapped with the sponsoring employer. This point has been made by numerous key players, e.g. the green card sponsoree advocacy group Immigration Voice and the congressionally commissioned NRC report. Yet, in an Orwellian twist, promoters of IGIB present the Intels’ green card sponsorship as actually making them better than the Infosyses. As I explained in my HuffPo piece, for the Intels, this indentured servitude is even more important than the salary savings accrued by hiring foreign workers.
The TNR article refers to some famous cases in which a US firm used an Infosys to replace an American worker in the firm. True, but the Intels do the same thing, just less directly. They wait for a layoff, then lay off mostly older US workers, then later hire younger foreign workers. The promoters of IGIB seem to have never wondered how the average age at the Intels is kept so low. Had they read the book Inside Intel, or merely put 2 and 2 together, it would have been clear that the Intels aren’t so different after all.
IGIB goes back at least to 1998, when the tech industry convinced Congress to (temporarily) double the H-1B cap, while placing some recruitment restrictions on the Infosyses. The message from the Intels was, “Yes, H-1B is widely abused, but by the Infosyses, not us.”
It wasn’t until around 2010, though, that the non-industry critics of H-1B — sympathetic researchers, immigration reform groups and so on — embraced IGIB, actually becoming the concept’s most strident supporter. They present exactly the same arguments made in the TNR piece, excoriating the Infosyses for being agents to third-party employers and for not sponsoring their H-1Bs for green cards. The fact that IGIB is so entrenched in Beltway thinking today stems in large part from promotion by the H-1B critics themselves. The TNR piece epitomizes the result of this heavy promotion. True, the H-1B critics do occasionally mention that yes, the Intels are a problem too, but for the most part, their statements on H-1B/EB are IGIB, no different from the industry.
(Here I must insert my usual disclaimer: I very strongly support legislation that enables “the best and brightest” to obtain fast-track green cards. But most foreign workers hired by the Intels are ordinary people, during ordinary work.)
As noted, in the nearly 30 years of H-1B’s existence, employers have always found ways to circumvent restrictions; indeed, they’ve gotten those loopholes inserted into legislation in the first place. Last week’s presidential executive order, which was focused on the Infosyses, will do very little for US citizens and permanent residents in tech, but it looks good — exactly the goal of IGIB ever since 1998.