The Big Lie Behind H-1B Visas

By John Miano on November 17, 2009

The concept behind the "Big Lie" is that if you make the lie a big one and repeat it often enough, it becomes a fact.

A Big Lie that has been prominent in the immigration debate has been the existence of a shortage of tech workers. The repeated claims a tech worker shortage has been the rallying cry for industry calls for more cheap foreign labor, generally on H-1B visas.

Walt Gardner in the Atlanta Journal Constitution highlights what tech workers and those of us who study the subject already know: The great tech worker shortage is the product of a Big Lie.

There is essentially zero empirical data that supports the existence of a tech worker shortage, yet the fabrication of a shortage myth has been a driving for much of immigration policy.

What is particularly interesting about the tech worker shortage is the how there is essentially no empirical data supporting it.

The focus of Gardner's piece is a new study that finds the U.S. is producing a sufficient number of tech workers.

We have looked at H-1B visa numbers for tech workers and found that the number of foreign workers is astounding compared to job creation; in some years the number of foreign programmers and engineers imported on H-1B visas has actually exceeded the number of jobs created in those fields.

Gardner's commentary also mentions studies by RAND. One really needs to read the studies to see how unequivocal they are. In one prepared for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, it states:

Is There a Shortage of STEM Workers?

One primary question this study sought to answer is, are there current or imminent shortages in the U.S. STEM workforce This question can be answered, "No," with a degree of confidence for workers with a graduate education.

The study also says:

Ironically, the closest thing to a crisis has perhaps been the distress of unemployed and underemployed engineers in the early 1970s, mathematicians and physicists in the 1990s, molecular and cellular biologists in the late 1990s, and Silicon Valley scientists and engineers thereafter. But these developments are the manifestations of surpluses, not shortages, in the STEM workforce.

The factoid that is usually thrown about to justify a tech worker shortage is the large percentage of Ph.D.s in engineering that go to foreign students. There is never any mention of the very small number of jobs are being created for Ph.D. engineers.

Finding support for a claim of a tech worker shortage takes desperate measures. One of the outgoing Bush administration's goodies for lobbyists was a regulatory change in 2008 to circumvent H-1B visa quotas by allowing graduates to work for up to 29-months on student visas. The justification for this measure was "critical shortages" of tech workers in the U.S. DHS gave just one citation to support this claim of a shortage:

See The National Science Foundation, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" (2007), pp. 78–83 (describing the critical shortages of science, math, and engineering talent in the United States) 73 Fed. Reg. 18,947.

Go read the report

and you find that the cited section has nothing to do with labor shortages; the phrase "critical shortage" appears nowhere in the report, and the report does not find a shortage of workers.

"Big Lie" is a fitting description of what has been going on.