Four New Threads Appear in Foreign Worker Program Tapestry

By David North, July 19, 2012

Four new threads in the complex picture of America's foreign worker programs have appeared in recent days, two of them at a session July 18 at the Brookings Institution, and two elsewhere in Washington.

Brookings Loads the Dice

The well-funded Brookings Institution is the granddaddy of all Washington think tanks. It held an all-morning session July 18 on the H-1B program.

There were 11 speakers at the event. One was neutral, one was critical of the H-1B program when he was allowed to talk, and the other nine were rooting for the program, including two people from major users of the program, Microsoft and Emory University. The critic was Jared Bernstein who was, until recently, the main economics guru to Vice President Biden, and is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Thread One. The focus of the session was a report on the "Geography of H-1B Workers" by Brookings staffer Neil G. Ruiz, who was one of the nine noted above. His report dealt with the distribution among metro areas of H-1B workers, which sounds like a bland topic, but is not. The thrust of the report was that it is better to discuss local labor supply and demand, by metro areas, than to deal with the subject on a national basis. This leads to the Brookings conclusion that the real "labor shortages" are in particular areas while the national policy calls for national ceilings on H-1B admissions without regard to the local situations and thus supports an argument for more H-1Bs and looser standards.

Bernstein did not attack that particular Brookings ploy, but he did indicate that he was uncomfortable with guestworker programs generally, and did not believe, as the others did, that it was appropriate for the government to interfere with labor imbalances via immigration policy.

Thread Two. Growing out of the focus on the local use of high-tech labor, was a brand new (to me) reason for not hiring American workers. While the H-1B defenders told how vigorously the H-1B-using firms seek American workers, they said it was difficult for some U.S. workers to move to new job sites because they were underwater on their home mortgages and could not move as a result. This is, of course, not a problem with the H-1Bs who do not have homes in the United States, and thus neither mortgages nor mortgage-related restrictions on their ability to relocate.

This reminded me of the we-can't-hire-American-workers excuses that growers gave the Labor Department decades ago when I worked there and we were winding down the exploitative bracero program, which brought Mexican Nationals into U.S. farms at harvest time.

I had growers tell me that they did not want to replace their braceros with American workers on the grounds that such workers did not speak Spanish and their Spanish-speaking foremen did not speak enough English to manage the new work force. We were also told that Mexicans, because they were said to be "built close to the ground", were the only people who could use the hand-held hoes then employed in the weeding of sugar beets. (That cruel labor practice died following the introduction of effective herbicides.)

The growers, of course, did not want to have to cope with native-born workers, but they were clever enough not to say so directly.

Back to Brookings: In response to the awkward mortgage variable, one young Hill staffer, Matthew Asada, who works for Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), tackled the Microsoft representative on that point. Given both the $10-$20,000 in government, legal, and sometimes travel fees associated with the hiring of an H-1B, and with Microsoft's enormous financial reserves, why, he asked, doesn't Microsoft use some of those resources to help potential U.S. employees with such mortgages?

The Microsoft person said that the firm spends a lot of time seeking American workers, but did not respond directly to Asada's question.

Lamar Smith Introduces Interesting Bill

Meanwhile Computerworld reported the other day that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is about to introduce a new bill on high-tech foreign workers.

Thread Three. Although the publication had not seen the text of the legislation, it said it was another version of the so-called "Staple Bill", which would give automatic green cards to aliens who earn advanced degrees in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) at American universities.

The number of visas to be used for this population would be limited to 55,000 and in exchange — and this is new — the government would terminate the diversity visa program that currently brings in that many people annually in a world-wide lottery. Thus, while the total number of legal immigrants would not increase as a result of this legislation, the occupational mix would change, bringing a much larger proportion of highly-educated migrants into the mix.

As usual, the devil is in the details, and these are not yet known. For example, if the 55,000 Staple visas included the spouses and children of the workers that would be an even trade with the diversity lottery system. If the 55,000 were all to be workers, and the relatives would be brought in outside the 55,000 ceiling, then it would be just another attempt to increase legal immigration to the nation.

Further, the passage of such a bill might be useful in preventing — or at least postponing — any bills calling for an increase in the H-1B ceiling.

Georgetown Plays Fair

Elsewhere in Washington, last week, Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration sponsored a much more even-handed two-day seminar on pretty much the same subject.

While the Brookings panel, with a single exception, was sure that labor shortages as defined by employers should be filled by government intervention in the labor market via immigration programs, that conclusion was regarded as highly debatable by the assembled scholars and activists at Georgetown.

Thread Four. Professor Philip Martin, a labor economist at UC-Davis, provided a useful, and I think new, taxonomy of immigration policy in a paper prepared for the conference. The key concepts are these:

There are two major ways to select migrants for economic/employment reasons: supply and demand:

Supply approaches usually award points for individual characteristics associated with economic success, including youth, education, language skills, and work experience. Regulators select migrants who are sometimes offered integration services after arrival.

Demand approaches usually allow employers to decide who is best to fill particular jobs. Regulators check to ensure that recruitment of local workers occurred at prevailing wages and qualified local workers were not available.

The Brookings seminar revolved around the demand principal so completely that no other approach was even discussed.