Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The tragic comedy of visas

I've written before that I'm not categorically opposed to the H-1B visa program, that offering short-term employment to people from other countries in certain fields is not necessarily a bad thing. But I do insist that the various people who buy wholeheartedly into maintenance or expansion of the program be honest in presenting their reasons, and that just isn't happening. When Bill Gates testifies to Congress that the program needs to be expanded, he isn't speaking as a statesman or expert in immigration policy, he's doing so as a major stockholder in a company that will profit from that immigration.

We hear a lot about a study that claims that every H-1B application generates five to eight jobs. I've read the study, and it's rather poorly done. (You can tell that from the conclusion, which is preposterous; if it were true, we could hire interns to fill out applications that would never be approved, and, voila!, instant jobs.) It's a regression study, plain and simple, with no causative factors explored. I would guess that, were it to be redone today, we would see continued H-1Bs and a drop in technical employment. That result would be just as spurious ("H-1Bs Cost American Jobs, Study Says"), and just as dismissible.

I don't know what the "right" number of H-1Bs is, and neither does anyone else. Right now, it's 65,000 a year, plus 20,000 for applicants who have earned masters' degrees or higher. I see nothing wrong with attracting the best and the brightest (the term that is invariably used by supporters of the program), I just don't see the mechanism by which we ensure that we're actually getting them.

I also don't like the marginalization of those who question or oppose the program. There are a lot of concerns that H-1B fans don't want to address, and those peope tend to be powerful enough to demonize the questioners. If you want to discuss whether the program has the right limits, or whether it's being used as intended (the companies that use the largest number of these visas are Indian inshoring companies), or whether the workers are paid the "prevailing wage," or whether this amounts to a kind of indentured servitude that enriches corporate executives, you're either told that you don't understand the wonders of free trade, or that you're an immigrant-hating racist.

It's something I've written before, but it bears repeating. I, unlike many of the people who feel free to weigh in on this issue, have worked with quite a few H-1B holders. Some of them are very good; you'd want them on your team, in your company, in your country. Some of them are just terrible, and should be sent home and drummed out of the field. The vast majority of them are, well, OK, competent, but nothing special. And the percentages of the people who fall into these categories are not so very different from that of US citizens.

It's really hard to justify, in our current climate, the importation of the mediocre and the terrible when there are good, experienced workers out of a job. That doesn't mean that we should exclude everybody, just that we should find some way of distinguishing those who are truly outstanding from those who are not. It's not as easy as handing every college graduate a visa, as not every mope who drags him- or herself to four years of classes is necessarily best or brightest (this goes for Americans as well).

Rob Sanchez's Job Destruction Newsletter chronicles the issues surrounding this topic in thorough fashion. He is, probably, more anti-H1Bs than I am, but that's fine. What is scandalous is that the issues Sanchez writes about are rarely taken seriously by the CEOs and pundits whose single-minded focus is "American workers bad, H-1Bs good."

April 1 is the day that US Citizenship and Immigration Services begins accepting H-1B petitions, and Sanchez is staying on top of this. There is a deadline of five days for accepting these petitions, and you may be wondering what happens if the cap is reached in that time - how does our government determine these best and brightest?

I'll let Sanchez answer this:
In case you are wondering what happens after the cap is reached, the USCIS will hold a random drawing to determine which ones get visas to work in the USA, and which ones have to go back to India. So, in order to select the "best and brightest" whiz kids in the world who will be invited to take jobs that Americans either can't do or don't want, we will pull names out of a big hat.
Again, I'm not absolutely opposed to some kind of program like this, but random selection completely undercuts the contention of its supporters. We're not looking for the elite, we're just looking to bring in people to do our work. That is most certainly not the stated intention.

Note: I'm not ignoring one possibility. It is conceivable that proponents of the H-1B program have no problem with the random draw because they believe that any immigrant is superior to any American. If so, they should just say that, and clarify their thinking for us.


Anonymous said...

"H-1Bs Cost American Jobs, Study Says"

Actually such a study has been done...although tounge-in-cheek.


The author there did a regression and found each H-1B visas cost cost 29 jobs. But points out the sillyness of such a result.

In any event, if you multiple the number of H-1B visas given out each year (over 100,000) by 5 and compare to job creation, you see how ridiculous the claim each visa creates 5 jobs is.

The study mentioned here is simply shameless. It's purpose is to give idiot politicians fodder to using in front of cameras....such as the moron John McCain who claims each H-1B visa creates 10 jobs.

Androcass said...

Thanks for the link. It has been entertaining, in a wince-producing way, to see a spurious study exaggerated further, as if the number of jobs claimed per H-1B isn't enough.

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