[Note: Here is Appendix 1, which follows the first six parts in the series]
This is the right place for a painful digression. It’s painful because it’s about a program related to immigration that is both confusing and calculated, as if by design, to become controversial. Yet, as I argue below, toward the end of this essay, it’s a program with promise.
Many middle-class foreigners with college degrees are in the US on temporary working visas. By numbers, the main category of working visas is the H-1B visa. (This is confusing, but there is currently no such thing as an H-1A visa.) Holders of the H-1B visa must meet specific educational qualifications. They are sponsored by American employers – but also by employers who look much like labor contractors based abroad. They may stay in the US for a period of three years, renewable for an additional three years. That’s except if they work for a university or for a research institute, in which case their visa is pretty much eternal. Although the number of visas allotted each year is capped, by accumulation, the program involves significant numbers of people, about 350,000 in 2016. Some or most H-1B visas are allocated by lottery on an annual basis. (It’s completely separate from the diversity lottery described above [in Part 1], as I said.)
The rationale behind the H-1B visa is to supply workers in specialties that industrial and other organizations cannot find domestically. The program is controversial for two reasons. First, unlike other temporary visa programs, this one explicitly allows holders to apply for a green card – for immigration – on the basis of occupational qualification. (See above.)
Applications from such foreign workers tend to be successful because the applicants are already familiar with American society where they have spent three to six years, including from a work angle. In addition, they are often sponsored by an employer willing to support their long and arduous application process and to pay for its elevated legal costs. (The H-1B visa is a heaven on earth for specialized attorneys and a gift that keeps giving.) The program is sometimes criticized as a back door to immigration. I don’t know how many H-1B visa holders go home, how many stay or try to stay. I would guess that most try to stay because a US green card is invaluable, even if you want to live principally in Bangalore.
The H-1B visa program is often criticized in the press and on the internet as a devious means to keep down the remuneration of domestic employees. (Norm Matloff, “Trump Is Right: Silicon Valley Is Using H-1B Visas To Pay Low Wages To Immigrants,” Huffington Post, February 31, 2018.) Significant legal dispositions narrow down this possibility. There is an absolute minimum wage for H-1B visa holders; employers must pay them the mean wage for similar workers in their company, or the prevailing local wage, whichever is highest. They are forbidden from being used as strikebreakers, etc.
Moreover, the large, prosperous, visible high-tech firms who make regular use of H-1B visas offer tempting targets for any upstart law firm with an ability to mount a class action suit. Such class actions could potentially include tens of thousands of plaintiffs or even more. I ask myself why would firms using H-1B take the risk, at the hands of jurors who could easily identify with the American-born plaintiffs? Nevertheless, inspections of this visa program show as many as 20% frauds and technical violations. (I have not examined further the nature and seriousness of these infractions. It’s probably worth doing.)
It’s easy to come across bitter individual accusations against the H-1B program. Below is a literal communication – cited without permission – from the Facebook timeline of populist activist Peggy Traeger Tierney’s sampled hap-haphazardly on July 14, 2018. The writer is an anonymous contributor, not Ms Tierney:
“My husband after 15 years of excellent service with Cisco computers was part of a massive layoffs which they do every single year but in 2015 he was part of 7000 that were laid off while Cisco Employed foreign workers or then turn around after they do massive layoffs of American workers and they turn around and higher [sic] foreigners under that H1B work visa program and my husband being an American citizen and an army wartime veteran was laid off by Sisqó [sic] while foreigners were not laid off or than Cisco turns right around and rehires foreigners after they lay off thousands of Americans every year Cisco does this and I think it’s disgraceful.”
The quotation above does not specify if the laid-off husband was a tech worker.
Without denying that abuses must take place, as someone who worked in a Silicon Valley full of H-1B holders, I am mostly skeptical of the allegation that holders of this kind of visa put a downward pressure on local wages. The main reason for my skepticism is this: every year, employers in Silicon Valley complain bitterly that there are not enough H-1B visas to satisfy their employment requirements. Once the quota of H-1B is filled, the local press reports that many specialized positions still go begging. I have trouble believing that Silicon Valley employers perversely decline to fill positions with competent native workers or with green card holders even after it becomes clear that there will be no H-1B relief for at least one year. It makes more sense to think that the supply of qualified workers who are either American citizens or green card holders is intrinsically insufficient.
Several knowledgeable people have pointed out to me that the jobs may go begging because, even given an equal cost, employers prefer foreign workers who are assumed to be more compliant than native-born workers and holders of green cards. This may be true but it does not make sense to me as far as the industries I know are concerned. Supposing that H-1B visas are really more compliant, compliance is just not so valuable in high tech industries. It’s not valuable enough that betting that it exists in a defined category of workers justifies the certain revenue loss associated with unfilled positions.
This hypothesis is nevertheless familiar to me because it sounds so mid-20th century. It’s possible that it’s valid for other categories of work-based visas pertaining to unpleasant, tiring, dangerous, or unfamiliar occupations. There are few of those left, of course. The pliancy hypothesis ignores the possibility that there are significant numbers of native-born applicants who qualify marginally on paper, from a narrow technical standpoint, but seem to lack basic vigor, based on other types of information to be hired. Letters of recommendation come to mind. (If you are guessing that the last sentences spring spontaneously from my 25 years of teaching in Silicon Valley, you are right!) The presence of applicants on easy-to-access-social media may also play a role. I note in passing that job applicants who live in the US are likely to have a bigger and more visible media footprint than do foreigners applying from abroad.
Today, generalizations based on national origin are taboo (“haram”), of course, but it’s a ridiculous, irrational taboo. Here is a quick test: You have to spend ten years on a desert island. You are allowed to take your significant other, your children, and a cook. You have a choice between two cooks. All you know about them is that one is English and the other is French. Which do you chose? Now think of young Indian tech workers who grew up under conditions such that 20,000 applicants compete for 135 slots in a top school.