Commentary | Immigration

America’s Genius Glut

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This op-ed originally appeared in The New York Times on February 8, 2013.

While genuine immigration reform has the potential to fix a seriously broken system, four senators have introduced a bill to solve a problem we don’t have: the supply of high-tech workers.

The bill’s authors, led by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, argue that America would benefit from letting more immigrants trained in science, technology, engineering and math work in the country, with the sponsorship of high-tech companies like Microsoft and I.B.M.

But the opposite is the case: the bill would flood the job market with indentured foreign workers, people who could not switch employers to improve their wages or working conditions; damage the employment prospects of hundreds of thousands of skilled Americans; and narrow the educational pipeline that produces these skilled workers domestically.

The impetus for the bill, which would give six-year visas to as many as 300,000 foreign high-tech workers a year, is the longstanding lament by business leaders that they cannot find the talent they need in the American labor market. In their version, there is a shortage of scientists and engineers, and the United States is failing to keep substantial numbers of foreign students in the country. As a result, our position as the world’s leading high-tech economy is in danger.

Fortunately, they argue, H-1B visas — our guest-worker program for high-tech workers — brings us “the best and the brightest” in the world. We just don’t give out enough of them.

But America’s technology leadership is not, in fact, endangered. According to the economist Richard B. Freeman, the United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, employs a third of its high-tech researchers, accounts for 40 percent of its research and development, and publishes over a third of its science and engineering articles. And a marked new crop of billion-dollar high-tech companies has sprung up in Silicon Valley recently, without the help of an expanded guest-worker program.

Nor are we turning away foreign students, or forcing them to leave once they’ve graduated. According to the Congressional Research Service, the number of full-time foreign graduate students in science, engineering and health fields has grown by more than 50 percent, from 91,150 in 1990 to 148,900 in 2009. And over the 2000s, the United States granted permanent residence to almost 300,000 high-tech workers, in addition to granting temporary work permits (for up to six years) to hundreds of thousands more.

The bill’s proponents argue that for the sake of our global competitiveness, we shouldn’t train and then return the tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian students who come here every year. But almost 90 percent of the Chinese students who earn science and technology doctorates in America stay here; the number is only slightly lower for Indians. If they’re talented enough to get a job here, they’re already almost guaranteed a visa.

If anything, we have too many high-tech workers: more than nine million people have degrees in a science, technology, engineering or math field, but only about three million have a job in one. That’s largely because pay levels don’t reward their skills. Salaries in computer- and math-related fields for workers with a college degree rose only 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2011. If these skills are so valuable and in such short supply, salaries should at least keep pace with the tech companies’ profits, which have exploded.

And while unemployment for high-tech workers may seem low — currently 3.7 percent — that’s more than twice as high as it was before the recession.

If there is no shortage of high-tech workers, why would companies be pushing for more? Simple: workers under the H-1B program aren’t like domestic workers — because they have to be sponsored by an employer, they are more or less indentured, tied to their job and whatever wage the employer decides to give them.

Moreover, too many are paid at wages below the average for their occupation and location: over half of all H-1B guest workers are certified for wages in the bottom quarter of the wage scale.

Bringing over more — there are already 500,000 workers on H-1B visas — would obviously darken job prospects for America’s struggling young scientists and engineers. But it would also hurt our efforts to produce more: if the message to American students is, “Don’t bother working hard for a high-tech degree, because we can import someone to do the job for less,” we could do significant long-term damage to the high-tech educational system we value so dearly.

There is no question that the immigration system needs major reform. But let’s not break anything else in the process.

Ross Eisenbrey is the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute.


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