Java programmers go home

Companies are desperate for high-tech workers, so Congress kicks them out of the country.

by Darren Bernard

The U.S. Congress has on display a glimpse of an odd and eerie future: Two newly printed bills, both introduced by both a Republican and a Democrat, with polar proposals for overhauling U.S. high-tech visa caps and requirements.

U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jeff Flake have endorsed a bill that would create much-needed flexibility for foreign-born workers and immediately raise the current H1-B (“high tech”) visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000. Their Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act would also exempt foreign-born U.S. university graduates with certain degrees from the caps altogether.

U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin introduced contrasting legislation that would “give priority to American workers” by requiring, among other things, “all employers seeking to hire an H-1B visa holder to pledge that they have made a good-faith effort to hire American workers first and that the H-1B visa holder will not displace an American worker.”

It would be difficult to draft bills that more neatly fit into the pockets of card-carrying ideologues. It is impossible to expect anything less from the Grassley-Durbin team, at least; their standard brand of protectionism leaves little to speculation.

There is a lot to be said for what the Gutierrez and Flake STRIVE Act could do for visa reform, but the Democratic-led Congress probably isn’t in the mood for that kind of reform. A little

more likely is that the Senate will go for something a little more bureaucratic, like forcing expanded audits of companies using the H1-B visa program, slowing the application process, making companies pinky-swear to giving U.S. workers preference, and creating absurd new hurdles for employers using foreign-born workers.

Sens. Grassley and Durbin claim to be pushing their legislation as much for eliminating visa abuse and fraud as for protecting

U.S. workers. In fact, their bill is a usual turn of their protectionist wheel, and it only does one thing: It makes it harder for U.S. companies to recruit the talent they need to compete.

The fiction that stricter high-tech visa requirements would benefit American workers is based on two false beliefs. One is that U.S. firms are hiring foreign workers solely for cost benefits – in other words, as a low-cost alternative to U.S. employees. Microsoft is one of many companies that employ hundreds of research and development staff overseas, but – like many others – not solely for cost reasons. Bill Gates has publicly complimented his Chinese workers for being some of Microsoft’s most innovative and productive.

Myth two is that while tech industries might be relying more on Chinese and Indian brainpower, it does not necessarily follow that skilled foreign workers are competing with U.S. workers for jobs. America’s unemployment rate for science and math jobs is 2 percent; the unemployment rate for engineering jobs is a shrinking 1.7 percent. If “unscrupulous employers” are really trying to “deprive qualified Americans of high-skill jobs,” as Senators Durbin and Grassley say, they really stink at it.

The message industry consortiums are desperately trying to communicate over such protectionist demagoguery is this: America has a labor shortage. And it is one that is sure to get more severe as the baby-boomers’ retirement cuts into big sections of companies’ labor forces. The solution is not more strict visa requirements, nor is it European-like free-for-all immigration policies. What companies need is more control and more flexibility in building their United States-based workforce.

There’s reason to believe what’s good for companies should also be good for U.S. workers. As much as protectionist camps love to blame offshoring for the limited median real wage growth in the United States over recent years, they will never admit that more visas mean more foreign-born workers mean less offshoring. What causes more downward wage pressure: Bringing highly skilled workers to the United States or sending tech jobs to China and India where market wages are a fraction of those in western nations?

The truth is the likes of Durbin and Grassley want to have their cake and eat it too. Their apparent goal is to ultimately prevent companies from either offshoring work or drawing overseas labor here. How the results of such a policy – extreme wage and price inflation, labor shortages, declining competitiveness – would ultimately benefit the U.S. economy and its workers is less obvious.

Gutierrez and Flake’s STRIVE Act is far from ideal legislation, but it does at least acknowledge and seek to fix a few of the hypocrisies of the dreaded U.S. visa system – hypocrisies, what’s more, that the Durbin and Grassley bill would make worse. As just one example, STRIVE would amend current law so visa caps would no longer cause thousands of foreign-born U.S. university students with much-needed skills to be sent home upon graduation. Companies are desperate for these workers, so Congress kicks them out of the country.

Expanding visa rolls, then – not restricting them – is the response that would do the U.S. economy, and maybe even the Democratic Party, some good. But most likely, Capitol Hill Democrats (and some rogue Republicans) will prove yet again they are neither willing to truly compromise nor see past their own union-supplied campaign troughs.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]