The Obama Administration has proposed a new rule to grant work permits to the spouses of H-1B holders who “are either the beneficiaries of an approved Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker (Form I-140) or who have been granted an extension of their authorized period of admission.”
According to the regulation, the new rule would further “the goals of attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign workers” specifically, workers in the U.S. on temporary H-1B visas.
This argument has been popular with the tech lobby and the Obama White House for years. When President Obama spoke to Jennifer Wedel, the wife of an unemployed engineer in 2012, he seemed skeptical to the notion that American engineers were having trouble finding work even as the tech lobby was lobbying for more H-1B visas. “What industry tells me is that we don’t have enough highly-skilled engineers,” he said.
President Obama has never strayed from the industry line, even as the idea of a STEM shortage became increasingly dubious. According to Ron Hira of the Economic Policy Institute:
The goals of the H-1B and L visa programs have been to bring in foreign workers who complement the U.S. workforce. Instead, loopholes in both programs have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in the country. They are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to U.S. workers.
A day after speaking with the unemployed engineer’s wife, the Administration introduced the idea of granting work permits to the spouses of H-1B holders as a way to attract and retain H-1B workers (who, remember, are here on temporary visas).
There are an estimated 650,000 H-1B workers in the United States.
Background on H-1B and the “PERM” process:
Current law allows employers to hire H-1Bs at “prevailing” – not “market” – wages. The worker cannot shop his or her services around. The employer holds the visa and all the cards. Employers who sponsor H-1Bs for permanent immigrant status enjoy additional years of indentured servitude. As one immigration lawyer explains: “the most important advantage of this process is the fact that the employee is tied to a particular position with one company and must remain with the company in most cases for more than four years…”
Once permanent immigrant status is granted, the employer loses the advantage over the worker. But the glut of U.S. STEM graduates plus the H-1B program make the now-older (and more expensive) worker easy to replace. This is part of a glorious circle for the investor class as labor costs are kept down by constantly replacing “older” workers with younger, cheaper ones. Programmers, for instance, are now considered “mid-career” after just two years in the industry.
According to the Department of Labor’s strategic plan, “H-1B workers may be hired even when a qualified U.S. worker wants the job, and a U.S. worker can be displaced from the job in favor of the foreign worker.”
The H-1B-to-green card process is different. Employers are supposedly required to show that they couldn’t find any qualified Americans for the job. But employers have been coached on how “not to find a qualified and interested U.S. worker.”
There is an overwhelming body of evidence to counter the tech lobby’s shortage claims and raise concerns about both the H-1B program and the H-1B-to-green card process. But the rule submitted by the Obama Administration sticks to the corporate line:
In many cases, the timeframe associated with seeking lawful permanent residence is lengthy, extending well beyond the 6-year period of stay allotted for by the H-1B nonimmigrant visa classification. As a result, retention of highly educated and highly skilled nonimmigrant workers can be problematic.
For whom? The Administration frequently cites research by Vivek Wadhwa, a former CEO who has researched and written about high-skilled immigration extensively. But they don’t cite Wadhwa’s 2008 article where he says “I know from my experience as a tech CEO that H-1Bs are cheaper than domestic hires.” Clearly retaining these less expensive and immobile workers is important to tech CEOs and to foreign workers who want to turn their temporary visa into a green card, but how does allowing temporary workers to remain temporary pose problems for American workers in these fields? The Administration continues to draw from the industry’s script:
Retaining highly skilled persons who intend to acquire lawful permanent resident status is important when considering the contributions of these individuals to the U.S. economy, including advances in entrepreneurial and research and development endeavors, which are highly correlated with overall economic growth and job creation. By some estimates, immigration was responsible for one third of the explosive growth in patenting in past decades, and these innovations contributed to increasing U.S. GDP by 2.4 percent.
Here the Administration cites a 2008 study from the National Bureau of Economic research, which doesn’t specifically address H-1B workers but does suggest that foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges (many of whom end up on H-1B visas) are more likely to produce patents than American students. The Administration fails to note that a subsequent study by the same author found no statistical difference. A 2013 Economic Policy Institute report adds that Americans in computer science are 10 percent more likely to work in research and development (where the innovation mostly happens) than foreign workers. In electrical engineering, Americans are 68 percent more likely to work in research and development.
The Administration continues:
In addition, over 25 percent of tech companies founded in the United States from 1995 to 2005, the chief executive or lead technologist was foreign-born. Likewise, the Kauffman Foundation reported that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business in the United States as the native-born and a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that more than 40 percent of 2010 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
The corporate lobby loves this line. John Miano of the Programmers Guild pulled back the curtain on this special kind of arithmetic five years ago. The corporate lobby arrives at these percentages only by counting companies with at least one immigrant founder as a company “founded by immigrants.” If you count the total numbers of founders, it turns out that immigrants participate in the founding of these companies at roughly their percentage of the population. Incidentally, none of the high-profile founders championed by the corporate lobby came out of the H-1B program, which (according to the Government Accountability Office, table 5) consists primarily of workers with “Entry Level” skills. The Partnership for a New American Economy, by the way, is Michael Bloomberg’s billionaires-for-open borders group made up primarily of the kind of wealthy CEOs who have Obama’s ear:
Additionally, in March 2013, the House Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing on Enhancing American Competitiveness Through Skilled Immigration, providing several members of the business community an opportunity to provide their perspectives on immigration. The witnesses represented various industries, but underscored a unified theme: skilled immigrants are contributing significantly to U.S. economic competitiveness and it is in our national interest to retain these talented individuals.
That sums up the Administration’s position on increasing the number of guest workers. It’s the industry line all the way to the bank.
Anyone who wants to speak up for wage earners have until July 11 to comment on the proposed rule.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
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