01 May Misconceptions dominate the immigration debate
The immigration debate is squarely in front of the nation again, and myriads of opinions are being voiced. If we look closely at many of these opinions, we see they are driven by an almost equal number of misconceptions and confusion about the issues, facts, and terms used in this debate.
A recent article run on WTN by James Carlini highlights this, and also gives us a good example to use to examine one small part of the immigration debate and its determinable parameters, historical facts, and terms. If we understood the details of these complicated issues, we might find that the vast majority of people in the U.S. share the same opinion. Taking on one sliver of the immigration debate, I believe we would all agree that the H-1B specialty worker program is good for the country.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (or CIS, formerly known as the INS) grants 65,000 H-1Bs to U.S. employers on behalf of professional workers not born in the U.S. (plus 20,000 more for workers with master’s degrees from U.S. universities). An approved H-1B lasts three years and can be extended for a total of six years. At the end of that time, most H-1Bs apply for permanent resident status (green card).
To be eligible, a worker must have at least a bachelor’s degree in a specialty field related to the position. H-1B professionals include teachers, medical professionals, researchers, economists, engineers, physical therapists, and computer professionals, and they make up less than one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. workforce.
The goal most all share is that we all want the U.S. economy to be strong and therefore we want U.S. companies to remain competitive. In order to be competitive, U.S. employers must be able to hire an adequate quantity of specialized employees. Utilizing a program that allows non-citizen professionals the opportunity to work temporarily in the U.S. in specialized fields furthers this goal.
Carlini’s article and the comments that followed it provide a roadmap to examine common misconceptions and confusion about H-1Bs. The most widely held misconception is that H-1B workers drive down U.S. salaries. However, in order to get an H-1B, employers must show the Department of Labor they are paying H-1B workers either the prevailing wage or the actual wage (the same as other employees at the same company).
The prevailing wage is the weighted average wage for a specific position in a specific geographic area. A study by Madeline Zavodny, a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, found that the entry of H-1B professionals neither lowers the contemporaneous earnings of natives, nor has “an adverse impact on contemporaneous unemployment rates.”
Research by Paul Harrington, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, shows foreign-born and native professionals earn virtually identical salaries in math and science fields.
The H-1B program has other built-in safeguards. Employers who use a lot of H-1Bs first must try to find U.S. workers before they can hire an H-1B. They also must attest that they are not using an H-1B if they have laid-off or displaced a similarly situated U.S. worker.
Another misconception is that the H-1B program is a shortsighted quick fix to a long-term problem. The problem, one that apparently we all agree on, is that the U.S. is not producing enough homegrown talent in the areas of math, computer science, and engineering. Foreign students represent half of all U.S. graduate enrollments in those fields, but Congress addressed this by adding a $1,500 scholarship fee to most H-1B petitions.
Because employers usually file multiple H-1B petitions for each worker, U.S. employers are contributing in the neighborhood of $250 to $300 million annually to help educate U.S. students in those areas. Between 1998 and 2003, the fund supported training programs for more than 55,600 U.S. workers and scholarships for more than 12,500 U.S. students.
The extra scholarship brings up an additional issue that runs against the misconception that U.S. employers hire H-1B workers because they are cheaper. Aside from the prevailing wage requirement, employers must generally pay at least $3,500 to $5,500 each time they file an H-1B petition. What employer would decide to pay this fee if it could find a U.S. worker?
Where will the workers come from?
This leads us to the issue of “there are enough talented people in the U.S. already.” As a general matter, this may be true – although the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 82 percent increase in computer positions and a 47 percent increase in engineering positions. Where does the U.S. supply come from with only half of the graduate student population coming from the U.S.?
The employment market is not fluid. An employer in Madison is not always able to hire that U.S. worker living in Chapel Hill because they don’t connect or because the worker doesn’t want to move. Specialization also adds to the problem – an employer may need Java, but folks with Java training might not be available. The H-1B program helps fill specialized holes in companies that allow them to remain competitive.
Some suggest H-1B workers don’t add to the U.S. economy but only drain. (It is important not to get confused here with the undocumented alien issue – H-1B workers are not undocumented.) H-1B workers pay all taxes U.S. citizens pay. They also spend here in the U.S. They all buy or rent a place to live, buy a car, and purchase everything U.S. citizens do. That’s probably the main reason they moved here – to enjoy the U.S. standard of living.
Sure, they have family at home, but if they have made it to the U.S. with at least a bachelor’s degree, they probably come from families who are at the top of the socio-economic ladder at home. The previous article confuses the issue with undocumented aliens, who are often driven by abject poverty to risk living in the shadows or even detention by sneaking into the U.S.
The H-1B program helps to keep America competitive. It brings highly skilled temporary workers to fill a few gaps in our workforce with legal provisions that protect U.S. workers. It raises significant funds to help educate American kids so that hopefully someday we won’t need the H-1B program. But the fact that this year U.S. employers paid to file more than 60,000 H-1B petitions than are available is reason enough to increase the cap.
Congress is in the process of discussing an increase in the H-1B cap and many other immigration provisions that affect business in the U.S. If you have an opinion, contact your Congressional representative – but stay away from rhetoric and misleading suggestions so we can get to a solution that we all support – a strong U.S. economy.
• James Carlini: H-1B jobs: Where is the shortage of skilled workers?
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.
WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.