GAO Hides Total Numbers of H-1Bs; I Say There are About 650,000

By David North, January 28, 2011

Suppose you have a suburban front yard of about 3,000 sq. feet (60 feet x 50 feet), and you have 30 dandelions in it, or one for every 100 sq. feet. Not to worry, enjoy the bright yellow flowers in the springtime. On the other hand, you could have 30,000 of them, or ten per square foot; they would shortly obliterate any grass you had left. You probably should make a policy decision about the dandelions, based on the numbers, because numbers matter.

They matter in the labor market, too, which is one of the reasons that the recently released, exhaustive, expensive-to-produce report of the Government Accountability Office on the H-1B program is such a disappointment. Despite massive research resources available to GAO, there is no effort made in the report, "H-1B Visa Program: Reforms Are Needed to Minimize the Risks and Costs of Current Program", to estimate the total size of the H-1B population in the U.S.

How can you calculate the program's impact on resident workers, and on the computer industry, and on the economy generally, if you hide the size of the population? And those analyses, supposedly, were the objectives of the GAO report.

It is well known that the H-1B program is a delight to powerful, penny-pinching employers, and has pushed countless American workers, particularly older ones (i.e., over 35) out of their jobs in the high-tech industries. For more on the adverse effects of the program see the writings of Prof. Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology, those of my CIS colleague John Miano, of Prof. Norm Matloff of UC-Davis, and of the Department of Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO.

Unfortunately, the one number generally associated with this program is a relatively modest 65,000; this is the congressionally established annual ceiling on the number of new H-1B visas that can be created for industry for aliens with bachelor's degrees in sciences and math; there is an additional 20,000 ceiling, too, for aliens with U.S. graduate degrees.

The real number that policy makers should be look at, however, apparently is about 10 times the 65,000.

The real number, like the elephant in the room, is ignored by GAO, and that is the total number of aliens in the country at one time who are working legally as a result of getting H-1B visas. My estimate, based mostly on official numbers untabulated by GAO, is something like 650,000, and is spelled out elsewhere.

My estimate may be off by as much as 10 or 15 percent, one way or the other, but it gives a ballpark figure that is needed for the immigration debate.

Industry, from Microsoft on down, would much, much rather talk about 65,000 as being too low for their narrow interests, rather than defending a total which is closer to one million. GAO either unknowingly, or more likely deliberately, did not take the relatively short amount of time needed to estimate the total number of workers who have arrived with H-1B visas – which, for all practical purposes – are good for life. Nor does GAO chastise the government for not providing this information routinely.

The GAO had, according to its own document, a staff of 31 full- and part-time people working on this report, and total access to every conceivable governmental reporting system, manual and electronic. Yet it chose not to even try to estimate the total size of the H-1B population, which goes through numerous governmental counting systems throughout its stay in the U.S. (There is no single, existing government statistical system, I must admit, that provides a hard figure; an estimate is needed.)

In sharp contrast, a much smaller, but the somewhat bolder staff of the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, dealing with a population for which no records are kept, provides an estimate of the total illegal alien population every year.

Why couldn't GAO do something comparable with the H-1Bs?

There will be more comments on this GAO report in a subsequent blog.