The H1-B Fiasco

The NYT had an interesting one-two punch on the subject of H-1B visas this

weekend. Saturday saw a news article by Julia

Preston, reporting the chaos at the IRS Bureau of Citizenship and

Immigration Services:

Swamped by petitions for work visas from highly educated or skilled foreigners,

immigration authorities have conducted a lottery for the first time to determine

which ones will be considered, federal officials announced yesterday.

Faced with 123,480 applications over the course of two days for a pool of just

65,000 visas, the BCIS probably had little choice. But the decision didn’t go

down well:

“The people we need to contribute to our innovation economy are being

subjected to a perverse form of ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ ” said

Robert Hoffman, vice president for government and public affairs at the Oracle


“Many members of the Class of 2007 effectively received deportation

orders and lost their post-graduation jobs last week,” said an April

9 editorial in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.

Then, on Sunday, Steve

Lohr chimed in with the opposite side of the story, in an "Economic

View" column.

While Microsoft may be paying its H-1B visa holders well and recruiting people

with hard-to-find talents, other companies have a different agenda. The H-1B

visa program, Mr. Hira [Ronil Hira, of the Rochester Institute of Technology]

asserts, has become a vehicle for accelerating the pace of offshore outsourcing

of computing work, sending more jobs abroad. Holders of H-1B visas, he says,

do the on-site work of understanding a client’s needs and specifications

— and then most of the software coding is done back in India…

Over the years, the H-1B visa, which allows a person to work in the United

States for three years and can be renewed for an additional three, has been

used by many people as a steppingstone to becoming a permanent resident. Traditionally,

about half of all H-1B holders eventually get green cards, immigration experts


Yet the major outsourcing companies, while seeking thousands of H-1B visas,

are asking for relative handfuls of green cards, according to government figures.

Lohr is way off base here. For one thing, the green-card argument is just plain

weird: if immigrants on temporary work visas turn out to be genuinely temporary

immigrants, why is that a bad thing? They pay lots of money into Social Security,

and get no benefits in return – a free lunch for the US economy!

And Dean

Baker has the more substantive point:

Both Democratic and Republican administrations have worked hard to put manufacturing

workers into direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world.

They have also thought it important to put many people in low-paying service

sector jobs into direct comeptition with workers from the developing world

through immigration policy (e.g. custodians, dishwashers, nannies).

Are we treating our high tech workers unfairly if they face the same competition

as textile workers and custodians? Only if we think that people with more

education need more protection than people with less education.

For three years after 2001, the H1-B quota was raised by Congress to 195,000

– and even that was too low. That it’s now back to 65,000 is a national

embarrassment. Compared to most immigrants, holders of H1-Bs are highly educated,

pay lots of taxes, and benefit both the economy and their local communities.

The cost of educating them has been borne elsewhere, and now they want to give

the benefits to the US. As a nation of immigrants, it should be welcoming them

with open arms.

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