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The furious debate over visas for high-tech guest workers

Haikun Shi, a scientist, was eventually able to become a US citizen. Many high-skilled immigrants aren't so lucky.
Haikun Shi, a scientist, was eventually able to become a US citizen. Many high-skilled immigrants aren't so lucky.
John Moore/Getty

On April 1, the government started accepting visa applications for high-skilled immigrant workers. But if you're a company thinking about applying for a visa, but haven't done so already ... let's just say you'd better be a fast typer.

Last year, the government received twice as many applications in the first week as the 85,000 visa slots available. Applications submitted before April 7 were put into a lottery; those that came in later were simply out of luck.

There's clearly high demand for skilled foreign workers, and no one denies these high-skilled, or H-1B, visas are good for American companies. But there is more controversy about whether that means they're good for America.

The questions about the H-1B program tend to fall along two lines: are tech companies hungry for visas because they can't find enough qualified American workers, or because they simply don't want to pay Americans more? And if America wants more skilled foreign workers, why does it force them to be dependent on a company to come and stay in the US?

Is there really a "STEM shortage" that companies need immigrants to fill?

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The H-1B visa is the main way educated, "high-skilled" immigrants can come to the US. H-1B visa holders have to have degrees and work in "specialty occupations," and, more important, they have to already have a job offer in order to come. (There are all sorts of requirements for when companies can ask to bring someone over on an H-1B visa — they have to notify all current employees that they're seeking an H-1B worker, have to testify that no current workers in the industry will be hurt by the hire, and can't pay the immigrant worker less than the "prevailing wage" an American worker would make.)

Most politicians and business leaders argue that more high-skilled visas is a no-brainer: there simply aren't enough qualified American workers. Without more ability to bring qualified workers to the US, they argue, companies will have to go to the workers and move overseas.

At the same time, there's a big debate over whether the country is really all that short on "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers. Most Americans who graduate with degrees in a STEM field aren't actually working in STEM industries.

This brings us to the H-1B skeptics — the most prominent of whom is Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who's used his new position as chair of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee to attack the H-1B program. The skeptics think tech companies are exploiting the myth of a "STEM shortage" to hire foreign workers for lower pay than they'd have to pay Americans. Sessions calls this the "Silicon Valley STEM Hoax":

It is understandable why large technology firms push the discredited STEM myth—a loose labor market for IT and STEM jobs keeps pay low, allows for substantial turnover without having to retain older employees with increased compensation, and provides a PR basis for the industry’s immigration lobbying campaign. What is not understandable is why they have gotten away with it for so long.

A lot of this argument would be avoided if everyone were clearer about what kind of workers we're talking about. Often, "STEM" gets used as a stand-in for Silicon Valley — the tech jobs we typically think of those with H1-B visas filling.

But most H-1B visas aren't going to Silicon Valley companies — many, in fact, are going to outsourcing firms. This doesn't mean that companies that aren't "real" tech companies are taking advantage of the visa — it just means that the definition of "tech company" should be broader than we tend to think of it as.

On the other hand, the "STEM" acronym is actually too broad. As my colleague Danielle Kurtzleben has written, the STEM industries that are actually growing — things like health care and IT — aren't necessarily the ones that every American who graduates with a degree in science or math is qualified to work in.

deep brain stimulation surgery

There's also evidence that having high-skilled immigrant workers is good for Americans in the tech sector. A 2014 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy (a group that advocates for higher levels of skilled immigration) showed that companies who didn't get access to H-1B visas in 2005 and 2006 generated way fewer jobs during the recession for American tech workers without college degrees than companies that had been able to get H-1Bs.

Having high-skilled immigrant workers is good for the economy. The status quo is bad for both tech companies and immigrant workers. But the question of whether the actual H-1B visa is good for America, or just good for tech companies, is an open one.

Is what's good for tech companies good for immigrants?

The second major criticism of H-1Bs is that they're not actually great for the immigrants who get the visas — they put them at the whim of employers, and make it harder for them to settle in the US for good (or strike out on their own as entrepreneurs).

The Obama administration is tackling some of this: it's fixing, for example, the fact that workers' spouses aren't allowed to work, even when they have expert degrees in STEM themselves.

But other issues still remain. H-1B visa holders are allowed to apply for permanent green cards but only with their employer's sponsorship. An immigrant who wants to settle in the US for good often has to hope that his employer will be willing to go through the trouble of sponsoring him — which involves stricter requirements about trying to hire Americans. (There's some evidence that the government is less likely to approve applications from Latin American high-skilled immigrants than others, to boot.)

If Americans are concerned about foreign workers sending their earnings home, or not investing in America and integrating into American culture, part of the problem is that the H-1B visa holders can't make those decisions for themselves.

The other problem with being dependent on an employer? An H-1B visa holder can't strike out on his own and become an entrepreneur. A lot of praise for high-skilled immigration focuses on immigrants founding major tech companies, but that's not actually an argument for the H-1B visa we have now. Without a company to sponsor him, an immigrant who wants to try out a new idea isn't an innovator, in the eyes of the law — he's violating the terms of his visa. This is why there's a lot of discussion in tech circles about an "entrepreneur visa," or ways to improve the current "investor visa" so that people with good business ideas can come to the US even if they aren't also rich.


CORRECTION: This article originally said that employers have to show they've made an effort to hire American workers before seeking an H-1B. It's more complicated than that. The employer has to show an effort to hire American workers before hiring a foreign worker permanently. And if an employer is "dependent" on H-1B workers, according to a government formula, he has to swear he's made a "good faith" effort to recruit Americans. But it's not a requirement for hiring individual workers on H-1B visas.