The only witness at a March 7 hearing on US competitiveness before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension, Microsoft’s Bill Gates outlined the consequences of a talent shortage in science and engineering. “America’s immigration policies are driving away the world’s best and brightest precisely when we need them most,” he said. Gates was referring to the H-1B visa program, which allows 85,000 “nonimmigrant” workers in “specialty occupations” to come to the United States each year. Close to half of these visas in 2005 were granted to high-tech workers.
Microsoft is a member of Compete America, which heavily lobbies to increase the H-1B cap. Founded in 1996 as American Business for Legal Immigration in part by the then-president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Compete America brings together disparate groups like universities, high-tech corporations and IT offshore outsourcers, all of whom have a common stake in expanding the H-1B program. Universities like the California system rely on foreign students to bolster their computer science and engineering PhD programs. Typically, more than 50 percent of such programs are filled by foreign students who arrive with the expectation of working in the United States on an H-1B after getting their degree. H-1B visa workers also make up the bulk of business for immigration lawyers, who stand to collect, at the very minimum, $1,000 per client.
Compete America’s dubious predictions of a talent shortage in high-tech fields divert attention away from the real problems of the H-1B program. Talent shortages are typically signaled by increasing wages and low unemployment levels. However, starting salaries for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science have remained flat since 2001. Perhaps more telling, 1 million high-tech jobs were lost during the dot-com bust, when the H-1B quota was at 195,000, its highest level ever. Vivek Wadhwa, an adjunct professor in the Master of Engineering Management program at Duke University, recently published a study that found no shortage of engineers in the past five years.
Whether or not the H-1B program brings in the “best and brightest,” it clearly serves another purpose: supplying businesses with a steady source of cheap labor. John Miano of the Programmers Guild discovered 3,000 job listings last year alone that specified that only H-1B workers need apply, and studies have found that high-tech workers on H-1Bs earn up to 23 percent less than their American counterparts. Aided by vast loopholes and little oversight, companies can hire H-1Bs over American workers, pay them below market wages and still comply with the law; the Labor Department usually rubber-stamps H-1B visa applications.
In his Congressional testimony, Gates pushed alarmist predictions of a talent shortage and ominously concluded, “Barring high-skilled immigrants from entry to the US…ultimately forces US employers to shift development work and other critical projects offshore.” His point would be convincing if the two companies that filed for the most H-1B visas in 2006, Infosys Technologies and Wipro Limited, did not also specialize in offshore outsourcing. These companies maintain domestic offices and contract low-cost services to US companies. Although they provide some on-site services using H-1B workers, they outsource most of the work abroad. According to Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Outsourcing America, Infosys and Wipro use the H-1B visa program as a platform to train workers in the nuances of US business and cultural mores before rotating them back to their home countries, where they can be paid even lower wages.
What lurks beneath the H-1B visa program’s high-tech hysteria and patriotic rhetoric is the reality of the race to the bottom. Foreign workers eager to come to the United States for a better future are willing to accept lower wages and working standards than Americans. This, in turn, undercuts the wages and opportunities of US workers and ironically of former guest workers who have managed to attain green cards or citizenship. Now ineligible for H-1B visas, these new or aspiring Americans suddenly find themselves unemployable. “Now that I am finally able to put my career first, the rug has been pulled out from under me,” says a former guest worker who became a US citizen.