It’s Time To Talk About H-1B Visas

February 10, 2017, 5:01 PM UTC

Dean Baker, an author, macroeconomist and co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C., has written an essay for Fortune that’s well worth your time. The title says it all: Silicon Valley Needs To Quit Whining About H1-B Visas.

The visa program, which allows tech companies to recruit lower cost STEM talent from other countries, has become an increasingly contentious sidebar to the bigger conversations around immigration, globalization, and business innovation. And, like many debates, both sides have a real point.

From his essay:

Opponents of keeping or expanding the program are correct in saying that it depresses the wages of STEM workers in the United States. It would be necessary to have some pretty strange views of economics to believe that a large increase in the supply of labor doesn’t put downward pressure on wages.

On the other side, the software companies that are pressing for more H-1B visas are right to argue that it gives a boost to their business and allow them to hire more workers in other areas. Having access to low-cost labor is an effective subsidy. It’s like if we gave these firms free rent. The firms that are able to hire workers through H-1B visas will have an advantage relative to their foreign and domestic competition.

But if we are to take the commitment that tech companies claim to have about diversity and inclusion seriously, we’re going to have to spend more time unpacking this issue as employees, customers, partners, and shareholders. First, there’s the fact that the H-1B visa belongs to the company, not the worker. If a recent import hates her job, she has little recourse but to find another company willing to sponsor her or leave the country. The optics of that dynamic are less than ideal.

But there is also the very pertinent issue of overlooked talent of color here in the U.S., the very people whom tech companies are writing big checks to train and recruit from specialized programs. He cites a study from CEPR showing that 10% of black recent college graduates were unemployed and another 32% were underemployed. (An analysis by USA Today showed similarly grim numbers for black and Latinx STEM graduates.)

This pits the business case for diversity squarely against the status quo.

“There are a variety of reason these workers have trouble getting jobs in their field,” Baker points out, “but the point is there are STEM workers who could be hired — it would just cost Apple, Google, and the like more money to hire them.”

On Point

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