Headline: Experts debate benefits and detriments of H1B foreign visa
Layercake: Guest worker program claims to seek world’s ‘best and brightest’
By KYLE SPORLEDERAggie Staff Writer
With American students trending away from math and the sciences, the H1B foreign worker visa program aims to draw international geniuses in these fields to the United States.
Though marketed as a remedy to labor shortages in industries such as engineering and the physical sciences, some argue that the H1B program instead propagates the exploitation of cheap foreign labor by domestic companies.
Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at UC Davis, is a self-proclaimed opponent of the program, calling for its fundamental reform. Previously a UC Davis professor in both the math and electrical engineering departments, Matloff points to loopholes as the key issue with the H1B program.
“Everyone who has invested interests makes it sound like all [of the foreign workers] are Einsteins,” he said. “But that’s rarely the case. The majority are ordinary people doing ordinary work. And furthermore, they’re getting paid much less than they deserve.”
The reason for this is a phrase used in the program’s primary statute referred to as “prevailing wage.” According to Matloff, this vague concept allows employers to take advantage of foreign skilled workers by granting them a H1B visa to work in a job for which they are overqualified.
Professor Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology in NY agrees that loopholes are the main issue, but also notes a concern of many American workers about the H1B program as well as other guest worker programs.
“Not only does it exploit foreign workers, but it also undercuts American workers,” he said. “All prevailing wage really is is an unjust minimum wage for skilled workers with college degrees. And all it does is problematically make foreign labor cheaper than domestic labor.”
Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Institute, has written a number of articles examining this issue and claims that a compromise must be met.
“The H1B program can become a bridge to permanent immigration,” he said. “It can be an important way to attract foreign skilled workers and give them a path to citizenship. But it needs to be done in a way that no longer disrupts American job markets. We need to fix this, not end this.”
One avenue of achieving this may be the Durbin/Grassley bill presently in the Senate, Matloff said.
This bipartisan bill would seek to eliminate exploitative practices by employers by redefining “prevailing wage” so that it reflects true market wages and by revamping the H1B program’s enforcement methods.
“If you make it so foreign workers are no longer cheaper than American workers, then they become equal laborers in the eyes of employers,” Matloff said. “Moreover, if you stabilize the fields of math, science and engineering, then you not only combat our country’s internal ‘brain drain,’ but you also better appeal to the ‘best and the brightest’ of the world that you originally sought.”
Chancellor Linda Katehi stressed the importance of maintaining the U.S.’s edge in higher education and tech industries.
“Many of the Ph.D. graduates from American universities in the sciences and engineering are not U.S. citizens,” Katehi said in an e-mail interview. “However, they represent important human capital for the U.S. technology workforce, and increases in the number of H1B visas can help retain these talented individuals [so as] to keep our technology-based economy competitive.”
Nevertheless, some experts believe that trying to address the inefficiencies of the H1B program and other guest worker programs is thinking on too small a scale.
Dean Kevin Johnson of UC Davis’s law school insists that it is essential to think well beyond guest worker programs and instead at the U.S.’s broader immigration laws. Without a concerted effort to bring the laws into synch with the realities of immigration of foreign workers and the demands of the nation’s labor market, Johnson considers a true solution unattainable.
“Tinkering with the H1B program is not going to address the underlying issue with undocumented immigration, which is employers’ demand for labor,” he said. “Right now, many skilled workers can only come here temporarily. We need to reform the immigration and labor certification process so that skilled, moderately-skilled and unskilled workers can immigrate here lawfully and potentially stay here permanently.”
KYLE SPORLEDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.