Mar 14, 2013 - Issue 508

Problem of Immigrant High Tech Workers

Similar to Farmworkers

How many times have we heard that immigrant farm workers do work that “Americans just won’t do?”

The economics of the U.S. food system have been discussed for 75 years and, during that time, there has been an unending search for lower production costs and that means the lowest wages possible to maintain the generations-old cheap food policy of the U.S. government.

Generally, Americans will not take the farm jobs that immigrants take because the pay is so low that they could not live on it, especially since it is seasonal for most farm workers, who either go back to their home countries or are looking for other casual work the rest of the year. For the growers and the giants in agribusiness, continuing to pay such low wages is the way to increase profits, so they naturally seek to continue the immigrant farm worker policies of the government.

But, immigrant high tech workers? Don’t they make $80,000 to $100,000 a year? Well they may, but studies show that they are a drag on the income of American-educated workers in high tech, which means that those who come out of college with science, technical, engineering, or mathematics degrees (bachelor or advanced degrees) are more inclined to bypass the tech sector and go into business, finance, or law.

There does not seem to be a shortage of native-born American potential high tech workers, so there must be another reason that Corporate America is pestering the president and congress to keep up the flow of immigrant high tech workers. In fact, they want to increase the flow. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wants the U.S. to let in more immigrants with degrees in mathematics, science, engineering, and technology, so the nation can be more competitive in the global market. The bill, Senate Bill 169, would give six-year visas to as many as 300,000 such workers each year, and Hatch and his co-sponsors say that would ease the shortage of such workers and set at rest the minds of their CEO friends. 

But, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), there is no shortage, since about nine million people have such degrees and only about three million have a job in one of those fields. EPI says that pay in those fields rose only about 4.5 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2011. That might give a clue about why they are not found working in their own field. And, the unemployment rate in those fields is about 3.7 percent, which is twice what it was before the current deep recession.

So, why the push for opening the immigration doors even further to high-tech workers? It could have something to do with what they pay immigrant high tech workers, compared with what they would pay American citizens for the same work. The foreign workers in high tech come here under the H-1B program, which means that a single employer speaks for them to come in and they work for that employer until their time is up, unless they can convince immigration authorities that they are valuable workers and need the green card to find work (presumably at a higher rate of pay) elsewhere. If these workers were allowed to shop around for better pay, the employer on the H-1B document would be constantly looking for replacements and all that it means for a company in the middle of a big project.

This is similar to the farm worker immigration program or programs that have been in place for decades. Those workers are not allowed to go to work on other farms, even though the pay and benefits might be better. They have to put up with the conditions or face the threat of being returned to their home country. Theoretically, it’s the same for those H-1B high tech workers. They are tied to their employer for the duration.

Corporations have made their case to both the congress and the White House that there is such a shortage that further opening the door for high tech immigrant workers seems to be the only option. On the current White House fact sheet on immigration for these workers is a headline: “Staple green cards to advanced STEM diplomas,” which means encouraging foreign graduate students to stay by “stapling” the green card to the diplomas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) Master’s degree and Ph.D. graduates from qualified U.S. universities who have found employment in the U.S.

Our own politicians have said they simply want to bring in the “best and the brightest” to keep the U.S. in the forefront of high tech research and development, so they want to keep them coming, or they want them to stay if they are already here. They say this without any definition of “best and brightest,” or any proof that those workers are any more efficient or creative than U.S. high tech workers who have left their fields for other, more lucrative occupations.

At least one intensive study, by Dr. Norman Matloff, has found that “on a variety of measures, the former foreign students have talent lesser than, or equal to, their American peers.” And, he has found that the assertion by Corporate America that the U.S. needs the foreign workers to remain at the forefront of research and development and globally competitive is not supported by the data. 

Matloff, in the EPI-published study, wrote, “The lack of evidence that the foreign students and workers we are recruiting offer superior talent reinforces the need to assure that programs like H-1B visa are used only to attract the best and the brightest or to remedy genuine labor shortages - not to serve as a source of cheap, compliant labor. We must eliminate employer incentives for using foreign workers as cheap labor, and we must end the practice of using green card sponsorship to render foreign workers captive to the employers who bring them into the country.” 

The H-1B program for high tech workers caused what Matloff called an “internal brain drain,” which, he said, was “anticipated, if not actually planned,” by the government, itself. Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, noted in the study that the Policy Research and Analysis (PRA) division of the National Science Foundation (NSF), as far back as 1989, “complained that Ph.D. salaries were too high. In an unpublished report, PRA proposed a remedy in the form of importing a large number of foreign students…” 

He said that another study noted that the former head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, “has made a number of public statements advocating the importation of foreign tech workers as a means of holding down salaries…” and that Greenspan referred to tech workers as a “privileged elite.” In doing so, Matloff pointed out, the former Fed chairman was ignoring the considerably higher pay of those who chose lines of work, such as law, finance, banking, or other fields. Are they not also privileged “elite?”

Pity the poor high tech CEO, who must continually find ways of getting more out of workers, for less pay and benefits. Immigrant workers seem to be the answer, and the White House and Congress fall into line, going along with Corporate America’s contention that there just are not enough Americans to take the jobs. After all the studies are in (and there have been numerous studies), it comes down to one thing: The best way to increase profits is to pay less and those who are willing to take lower pay are the immigrant workers, and figure out a way to make that seem reasonable.

It sounds strangely like the barons of big agriculture, who have made the same assertions over generations: “Americans just won’t do the work immigrants are more than willing to do,” when it’s really about the same thing, making more money on the backs of the workers. Search no longer for a reason for this “problem.” High tech workers likely have never given the plight of farm workers a thought, but they should. High tech workers should pay attention to the lives of farm workers, because the farm worker “problem” is what gave Corporate America the experience to treat these workers in the same way they treated the workers in the farm fields of America.

It’s all about the money and the profit, no matter how many degrees come after a high tech worker’s name. It’s not an easy thing to realize that, after all the hard work and years of experience in high tech, you could have saved all that mental work and educational expense, and you would have been able to experience the same kind of treatment if you had decided to pick tomatoes. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.