Immigration for techies in US

Question: Should the USA make it easier for people with scientific or engineering skills to immigrate to the US?
Or would this work to the detriment of US citizens seeking jobs?

There aren’t enough Americans with the high tech skills needed by companies.


One answer is “No, we should treat everyone equally, no matter what their qualifications are.”

Another answer is “Yes, we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to strengthen our society and economy, and trained, professional citizens can help accomplish this.”

Pick whichever one of those you want.

“Question: Should the USA make it easier for people with scientific or engineering skills to immigrate to the US?
Or would this work to the detriment of US citizens seeking jobs?”

This is the reasoning that I have heard in relation to this subject.

If the U.S. allows more skilled immigrants into the U.S. then they can help to fill the thousands of open positions in the technology sector, as well as pay U.S. taxes! We will essentially steal all of the other country’s best people and incorporate them into our companies. Us “lazy” Americans will be forced to stay on top of our game in order remain competitive in the job market. This is a good thing. While salaries may drop we would not have to be as concerned about American technology companies outsourcing to countries such as India or in a worst case scenario building there operation centers in India or somewhere else that has an abundant supply of cheap but skilled labor.

Having previously worked as an immigration paralegal for the high-tech industry, I can guarantee you these workers are not coming “cheap”. Companies are not granted visas for them unless they are paying them at least the prevailing wage. Usually, just to be on the safe side, they’ll pay a bit more. Admittedly there are probably a few companies skirting this requirement, but they’re the exception.

Some people argue that the “prevailing wage” is a nebulous requirement, and so in practice, foreigners do amount to cheap labor. Personally, I think this is a bogus argument. Even if we grant this premise to be true, the vast majority of techie types can still command very high salaries. As a result, I think we should be more concerned about what benefits the nation as a whole.

Some also argue that there are plenty of technical people to go around. Again, I think this is oversimplifying. Take computer programmers, for example. Even if we grant that there are plenty of programmers to go around, that doesn’t mean that these programmers have the necessary skills. There is certainly a high demand for people with advanced programming skills AND a formal background in Physics or Engineering – and such people are hard to come by. (Many Engineering grads have studied programming, but relatively few are at a truly advanced level.)

Every engineering company that I’ve worked for has had a hard time finding the right people. This tells me that the demand for techies is REAL, not just propaganda for cheap, foreign labor.

Even if it is “nebulous” the fact remains these people are making a lot of money.

Also, it isn’t cheap for the companies to hire H-1B workers. They have to pay their immigration attorneys (who absolutely do not come cheap), they gave to pay INS filing fees, and the bigger companies who hire lots of foreigners usually have to add to their HR staff as well - every large high-tech company my law firm represented had at least one, and usually several, HR employees who dealt specifically with the foreign workers. Any company who goes into the H-1B market to save money is going to get out of the market pretty damn quickly.

Have to pay INS filing fees.


This link offers much evidence to dispute the claim of a shortage of programmers. The evidence suggests that the shortage is artificially created.

It also suggests that H1-B visa workers are not paid a prevailing wage, thus acting as cheap labor.

Professor Norman Matloff’s Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage

Matloff’s position boils down to this: the industry must not really be desperate for workers because if it were, it wouldn’t be so “picky”. A firm that really needed a Java programmer could take anyone in the office with basic coding skills and train him/her to become a competent Java programmer within a few weeks’ time; and the fact that they’re hiring foreigners with actual Java experience instead demonstrates that they’re really just after the cheap labour.

Believe it if you want. But don’t call it “evidence”.

His “evidence” on comparative salaries is problematic as well:

This statistic is subject to the same criticism as the prevailing-wage law: it’s too nebulous. Are education and experience adjusted for? How about location?

There was a problem with this back in the mid-1990s, at which time said audit was conducted. Stricter requirements have been instituted since then, rendering this statistic irrelevant.

The part I added emphasis to suggests that there’s more to the context of this quote than Matloff chose to include. I’d like to see it, but the article doesn’t appear to be available on-line. I will say that $20-25,000 is an extraordinary amount and seems unlikely on its face to be true, and it’s hard to put a great deal of credence in a reference to an anonymous quote, from the WSJ or wherever.

Forbes doesn’t provide a cite for this statistic, though. The article goes on to talk about “New England, where 10% of high-tech jobs remain vacant because of a shortage of qualified workers”. It’s interesting that Matloff accepts the wages statistic without question, but completely ignores this labour statistic.

If they’re employing workers in Russia I would sure expect they weren’t paying them much. Of course, with the meager source Matloff provides I can’t check to see if that is indeed where they are employing them.

The one area where Matloff does have a point is WRT age discrimination. However, age discrimination is a problem in many industries, not just high-tech, and it’s absolutely disingenuous to blame H-1Bs for it.

Before I go to sleep (1 a.m. Christmas morning and I’m up doing this, for God’s sake) I’d also like to point out that Matloff’s position on immigration in general is that there’s too much of it. He supports (I’m quoting this from his website) “reducing the yearly quotas for legal immigration-in all categories, for all nationalities, at all socioeconomic levels”. Something to keep in mind when you’re wondering how reliable you should consider his “evidence”.

Unfortunately, such arguments are all too common… and remarkably naive.

Teaching someone Java is one thing. Training that person to be competent in domain analysis and object orientation is more difficult. In my experience, the vast majority of programmers – even those with formal training – have lackluster object-oriented design skills. Such skills are very difficult to impart with just a few weeks of training.

Also, as I said before, there is a large demand for programmers with extensive scientific and engineering skills. I know an engineer with advanced C++ and object-orientation skills, who also has degrees in physics and electrical engineering. Such people are highly sought after in fields such as robotics and disk drive control. Does Matloff honestly believe that you can simply take someone with “basic coding skills” and train him to be fluent in electromagnetics and non-linear dynamics? Talk about naive!

Oh, absolutely. I hope it was clear that I was making the same point. :slight_smile:

Besides, the nebulousness argument cuts both ways. If one says that the concept of “prevailing wage” is too nebulous, then one would also be hard-pressed to prove that foreign technical workers are driving the prevailing salaries down.

I suspect that most of these criticisms come from American engineers whose skills just aren’t competitive. To them, it looks as though foreigners are stealing their jobs, or driving their salaries down. In actuality though, the complainers are simply being outclassed.

That was a well-written rebuttal, ruadh. I have just a few more points to add.

And even if it weren’t, that would only be an argument against violating the wage laws. It would not be an argument against immigration itself.

If this statistic is accurate (which I doubt), I would guess that it’s because H-1B visa holders tend to be fresh out of school, whereas their “naturalized colleagues” typically have years more experience. In other words, Matloff is comparing apples and pineapples.

Besides which, I think we should take “age discrmination” accuastions with a grain of salt. Bitter employees can always claim that they’re being discriminated against based on age. I would guess that in reality though, much of this “discrimination” occurs because the younger engineers have skills which are more up-to-date. I think this is especially true in the computer programming industry, which is advancing at a breakneck pace.

And the lack of Matloff-esque complaints from these naturalized colleagues - and from the H-1B workers who’ve obtained green cards - is striking, isn’t it. Since these folks are treated the same as native-born US citizens for employment purposes, if Matloff were correct you’d expect that, having obtained their green cards, they’d now be unable to find work in the industry because of jobs being made available only to new H-1Bs. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

You are misconstruing Matloff’s position. Do you know what a straw person argument is?

Nowhere in his paper does he say anything about retraining anyone with basic coding skills. He mentions retraining experienced or competent programmers. Are you seriously suggesting that a programmer with basic coding skills is the same as a programmer that is experienced?

What are these stricter requirements?

You are absoulutely correct about the large demand for programmers with extensive scientific and engineering skills. However, the vast majority of H-1B’s do not have this.

Read section 9-6, which illistrates that most H-1Bs are regular workers, certainly not at the level of your engineer (colleague, friend, acquaintance?). Also section 9-8, dealing with H-1B fraud, listing several examples of supposed experience in a language that has been either embellished or even made up entirely.

From Matloff’s paper:

Would the engineer you know accept $50,000 a year?

What reason does his stand on immigration give me to doubt his evidence? Are you suggesting he is xenophobic? Perhaps you should read more about his background, particularly the paragraph beginning “Professor Matloff has been active in Chinese communities for over 20 years…”

Matloff’s background

Did you even read sections 9.2.7 and 9.2.8, which list the view of some immigrants on the matter? 9.2.7 even lists an example of a naturalized citizen competing with an H-1B visa holder for a job, and the H-1B visa holder taking it for less than what a normal master’s degree holder would. (They both had identical credentials.)

From Matloff’s paper, section 9.2.8:

Companies shun older workers, because they are more expensive than younger Americans or H-1Bs. If you think it is because they do not have the most current skills and are therefore useless, please read section 7.2.

Knowledge in a particular programming language is not the crucial thing. The crucial thing is skill in the art and science of programming.

Granted; however, this was merely one example of how Matloff’s “analysis” involved gross over-simplification. I know people involved in other fields, such as graphic design, who voice the same complaint – that there are programmers available, but few with just the right background or qualifications. Often, these aren’t skills which can be taught in just a few weeks.

These instances of “fraud” are a smokescreen. They only demonstrate that the laws need to be enforced strictly. It doesn’t mean that the need for engineers is non-existent. (Additionally, having a mere “several” cases of fraud proves nothing. In any system, there are bound to be people who will commit fraud.)

Besides, the question isn’t whether existing laws as sufficient. The question is whether there is a need for additional technical manpower.

From Matloff’s paper:


Once again, this demonstrates how Matloff is grossly over-simplifying.

First off, most H-1B’s are fresh out of school, so naturally, most of them wouldn’t command top salaries – even if they have are highly qualified. Additionally, it costs thousands of dollars to recruit foreigners, which would also factor into their supposedly lower wages.

Second, nobody says that high-tech companies are only recruiting “genuises” or “top programmers.” Matloff seems to assume that if these people aren’t absolute topnotchers, then the demand for manpower doesn’t really exist. That fallacy is obvious – glaringly so.

So what if not all foreign workers are “genuises” or “top programmers”? That doesn’t mean that there’s no lack of technical manpower. One could just as easily use these (questionable) statistics to assert that companies are forced to recruit foreigners who are NOT genuises, but who still outclass their American counterparts.


He says that during his first year of employment, he earned only $48,000/year. That quickly rose to $60,000, then $66,000, then $72,500 – all within three years. In other words, he is extremely well-qualified, but his salary level did not immediately reflect that – partly because he WAS a foreigner.

Once more, that demonstrates how Matloff’s analysis is superficial at best. Given the large number of sweeping generalizations that he has made, I would be very careful about accepting his accusation at face value.

First of all, a few anomalous examples don’t necessarily reflect the state of the industry at large. Problems like this can be avoided, but they can’t be eliminated entirely.

Second, even if these examples were typical, that wouldn’t disprove the need for technical immigration. It would only demonstrate that the H-1B (temporary worker) visa laws need to be modified to prevent such problems.

In fact, such steps have already been taken. Clinton recently signed a bill which would allow H-1B workers to switch jobs more-or-less freely. Previously, they had to wait several months before they could switch jobs, which allowed for occasional instances of exploitation. The new law helps prevent that, and thus, makes H-1B salaries more competitive.