How About Immigration Reform That Makes America Smarter?


The mainstream discussion about the problems with America’s immigration laws and possible solutions has been rather myopic. Most of the dialogue involves the US-Mexican border, the 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country currently, and the need for a guest worker program for low-skilled laborers.

A few lone voices are discussing how to help make America smarter through immigration reform. But the issues involved aren’t as sexy as broken borders or amnesty.

Up until about a year ago, I worked in the biotech/pharmaceutical field in healthcare policy and grassroots advocacy.  In the mid-to-late 1990s, our industry dealt with a serious issue involving the lack of highly skilled workers. The reality is that the United States just doesn’t have enough domestic high-skilled science and technology college graduates to fill needed jobs in private market science-based companies.

[Senators Marco] Rubio and [Orrin] Hatch pointed out that about 120,000 computer-engineering jobs are created in America annually, but that only 40,000 college students graduate each year with a computer science degree. Rubio said that the companies with those vacant jobs will not wait for more U.S. graduates and that they might move to other countries looking for qualified workers.

According to inSPIRE, a coalition supporting immigration and workforce development needs, there is a great need for reform.

• Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs are expected to grow by 17 percent during the decade ending in 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent-growth in non-STEM jobs. But at the current pace, the U.S. won’t be able to produce enough workers to fill the jobs. In 2008, just four percent of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded in engineering. In China, 31 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were in engineering and throughout all of Asia the percentage was 19 percent.

• From 2010 to 2020, the U.S. will have about 1.2 million openings in computing professions that require a bachelor’s degree. At the current pace, however, the U.S. will not produce even half the number of graduates needed to fill those positions.

• Examining the computer science field more closely, through the year 2020, the U.S. economy is expected to produce 120,000 new computing jobs each year, jobs that will require at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study. However, America annually produces just 40,000 graduates with bachelor’s degrees in computer science.

So, despite successful reform efforts under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, the workforce development needs are greater than ever.

Momentum is building for solutions with bi-partisan legislation in the Senate to help alleviate the high-skilled worker crunch.

U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) today introduced legislation, the Immigration Innovation (I2) Act of 2013, to bring long-overdue reforms to the nation’s immigration laws for high-skilled workers.  The bill focuses on areas vital to ensuring the United States can maintain its competitiveness in the global economy: the quantity of employment-based non-immigrant visas (H-1B visas), allowing for their growth depending on the demands of the economy while making reforms to protect workers; increased access to green cards for high-skilled workers by expanding the exemptions and eliminating the annual per country limits for employment based green cards; and reforming the fees on H-1B and green cards so those fees can be used to promote American worker retraining and education. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Mark Warner (D-Va,) are all original cosponsors of the bill.

The summary of the Senate legislation can be read here.

Senator Rubio in particular has been quite outspoken about the need for reform of the H-1B visa program.

Wouldn’t it be great, regardless of the outcome of the contentious issues of immigration reform, if Congress could actually pass a law that made our nation and long-term economy smarter?

Let’s hope.

There are 12 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    Question:  The much despised John Derbyshire has opined on a number of occasions that the “shortage” of high-tech workers is actually business doesn’t want to pay for ones who are American citizens, the ones here on H1-B visas are cheaper. That we really wouldn’t have the shortage if the pay were commensurate with the skill.

    My personal observation is that business always goes for the very cheapest people they can get (sometimes getting burned because you do get what you pay for). 

    I’ve observed high-tech workers on H1-B visas treated essentially like indentured servants, almost chattel.

    If the businesses were willing to pay $1 million per year to a worker with the skill set they require, do you mean to tell me they couldn’t fill the position? I suspect they could so the issue isn’t that they can’t find the worker, they just don’t want to pay for him/her.

    Why not let market forces of supply and demand work?

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    Additionally, as long as industry continues to insist on a bachelor’s degree as the gating credential, it will have to support the expense of the worker achieving one.

    Maybe accepting technical school and experience, and not limiting the persons ability to earn and advance without the degree would help ease the shortage.

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    I don’t necessarily disagree with you in a 20-year horizon.

    But the fact remains that our students graduating from high school and college are terrible when it comes to science and math; not to mention reading and writing.

    That’s a topic for another day.  Many days.

    Unless we want the USA to cede a competitive advantage to other nations in the “STEM” jobs, we have to do something now.

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    Bruce – I respectfully disagree. I’m been writing software for 25 years or so and the “profession” has gone steadily downhill.

    It’s not so much a pay thing (based on a recent article in the Atlantic, my pay with only some college is comparable to a newly-minted grads with PhD.s in the hard sciences) although, it should be noted that pay has been pretty flat which does not indicate a tight labor pool.

    I can’t speak for industries outside of embedded software and electronics, but in my biz, working conditions have been sliding for years (see about any Dilbert strip). Instead of better management (which would increase productivity and project success rates), business prefers to throw more bodies at the work – which almost guarantees failure (see The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks).

    Finally, you should read Norm Matloff (ComSci prof @ UC-Davis) who has written a lot on H1B.

    Rob (aka SoCalRobert).

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    Certainly a step in the right direction. But allowing US companies and families to bring in unskilled and low skilled workers is also very important. Unskilled workers help free up resources – more specialization, more trade, more division of labor, more growth.And I don’t agree with the idea that we as a country are in “competition” with other countries. It’s not a zero sum game. As Paul Krugman said back when he was a trade economist and not the political hack he is now, “a country is not a company.”

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    There is a downside to H-1B visas.  It is a great way to export proprietary knowledge. 

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    I know too many fine people who spent a long time looking for work with STEM skills. The companies want bodies not trained scientists. Thats what China gives them. A Chinese doctorate isn’t worth much in my experience other then proof of willingness to work 100 hour weeks for 30,000$ a year and no benefits.

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    Nick Stuart:  John Derbyshire has opined on a number of occasions that the “shortage” of high-tech workers is actually business doesn’t want to pay for ones who are American citizens, the ones here on H1-B visas are cheaper.

    I have mixed feelings on this. I’ve worked as a mid-level software engineer for a couple of well-known Silicon Valley companies over the last 15 years with teams that were mostly from the PRC, at least 30 Chinese software engineers. Most were better than average, some exceptionally good and some had practical math skills I’ve never seen in an American engineer.

    On the other hand, Derb has a point: true shortages send a price signal that I’m not seeing.

    I don’t begrudge my Chinese co-workers their jobs. They are exactly the quality of engineers that we want but I have heard enough stories about minimally competent, cheap warm bodies being hired over Americans to make me wonder about any H1B legislation.

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    Furthermore, I once worked at a software contracting/consulting company that played the H1B warm body game. I don’t know all of the legal procedures and details but it went something like this:

    We would place some foreigner with a client, write a job ad that only he could meet, place the ad in a free, weekly throw-away paper that no one hired from. This apparently met the legal requirements.

    Some of these guys were pretty good but I don’t remember any that were exceptional, who’s skills and abilities could not have been found at any of the local colleges.

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    Nick Stuart: Additionally, as long as industry continues to insist on a bachelor’s degree as the gating credential, it will have to support the expense of the worker achieving one.

    One of the better SW engineers I know is a 40+ year old white guy who got an internship while in school, dropped out and worked his way up. I doubt he could get hired at that company today and  even with his experience  has a difficult time getting in the door in most companies without an in-house reference to mitigate his lack of a degree. It has held him back with promotions even though he was doing  work superior to that of his degreed co-workers.

    I’m not that familiar with “trade” schools but it would seem that there could be some way of training people that just want to code without getting 4 year bachelors degree.

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    Bruce Carroll:

    But the fact remains that our students graduating from high school and college are terrible when it comes to science and math; not to mention reading and writing.

    More than once, I’ve seen a couple of my Chinese co-workers break out their queueing theory and linear programming math skills to solve some problem with a facility that I almost never see in Americans.

    One of my Chinese co-workers, who spoke English with a sometimes difficult to understand accent rewrote 3-4 paragraphs of a document written by a native English speaker and vastly improved it.

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    There are hundreds of thousands of unemployed American engineers with advanced degrees, and hundreds of thousands more who are underemployed or working outside their area of expertise.

    As KC Rob mentions, Norm Matloff has done a lot of work on this.

    Jeff Sessions is the only Senator with the courage to point out that we should consider policies that benefit Americans. What a wacky idea.

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