Mr. President, we must not allow an engineer gap!

By Mark Krikorian on February 6, 2012

National Review, February 6, 2012

Jennifer Wedel (an “avid Republican”!) got the drop on President Obama the other day by asking him why, with so many American engineers like her husband unemployed, he wants to import even more engineers from abroad. Obama responded that industry tells him there’s a “huge demand” for engineers around the country, and that she should send her husband’s résumé to the White House.

The Republican National Committee has leapt at the opportunity, launching a site called Not Better Off, highlighting the weak job market during the president’s tenure and urging people to send him their résumés.

It’s a nimble political response, but there’s one problem: The Republicans also want to import cheap foreign labor for tech companies. The Bloomberg/Murdoch group Partnership for a New American Economy (a/k/a “Billionaires for Open Borders”) ran an ad in South Carolina showing that every GOP presidential candidate wants increases in “skilled” immigration, concluding that “there’s really no debate . . . America needs high-skilled immigrants to create new jobs and grow our economy.”

Actually, there is debate. And the crux of the debate is the question, how skilled is “high-skilled”? Where do we draw the line? At a bachelor’s degree in a “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field? Master’s? Ph.D.?

The discussion has focused on this because the tech industry has shifted some of its lobbying money from the customary push for increases in the H-1B visa (ostensibly a program to import temporary labor) to new proposals to automatically give a permanent green card to any foreign student receiving a degree in the U.S. in a technical field. This is commonly referred to as the “staple a green card to the diploma” approach, and is found in a number of bills or proposals, such as the “Staple Act” and the “Brain Act.” The issue being considered by lawmakers, then, is which diplomas to staple green cards to.

There’s not much of a push to give special immigration access to foreigners receiving bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields because there’s nothing particularly special or “high-skilled” about them. Don’t take my word for it; Darla Whitaker, the head of human resources for Texas Instruments, told Congress last fall that TI doesn’t sponsor foreign students with bachelor’s degrees for green cards or “temporary” H-1B visas because they don’t need to — there are plenty of American students getting bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.

What’s more, my colleague Steven Camarota has calculated from Census Bureau data that in 2010 there were 1.8 million working-age, native-born Americans with bachelor’s degrees in engineering who were unemployed, no longer in the labor force, or working in fields besides engineering. That’s not all technical fields, mind you, just engineering.

At the other end of the skill spectrum, there’s little need for such a program, since pretty much all foreign Ph.D. recipients who want to stay end up staying already. A internal report from the National Science Foundation specifically planned for increases in the admission of foreign Ph.D. candidates to undercut salary increases for Americans: “A growing influx of foreign Ph.D.’s into U.S. labor markets will hold down the level of Ph.D. salaries to the extent that foreign students are attracted to U.S. doctoral programs as a way of immigrating to the U.S.” In other words, foreign Ph.D.s would be willing to accept lower salaries because part of the compensation package would be access to the U.S., something American and permanent resident students already have.

The lower salaries will create a cycle, according to the NSF report:

The relatively modest salary premium for acquiring an NS&E [natural science and engineering] Ph.D. may be too low to attract a number of able potential graduate students. A number of these will select alternative career paths outside of NS&E, by choosing to acquire a “professional” degree in business or law, or by switching into management as rapidly as possible after gaining employment in private industry. For these baccalaureates, the effective premium for acquiring a Ph.D. may actually be negative.

So, flood the market with foreign Ph.D. candidates, thus lowering salaries, thus inducing talented American young people to pursue other career options, thus creating the need for even more foreign Ph.D. students. Your government at work!

But as problematic as automatic green cards for Ph.D.s might be, the real political fight is over the level of education in between — the master’s degree. Should foreign students getting a master’s degree in a technical field get an automatic green card? Industry lobbyists, think tanks, columnists, and lawmakers are pushing hard in this direction. There are almost three times as many master’s degrees as Ph.D.s in STEM fields awarded to foreign students, which means their inclusion in a “staple” bill would do that much more to hold down wages.

And the current number of foreign master’s-degree recipients is just the starting point. Given the lower standards and shorter time investment for a master’s degree, the potential for abuse — diploma mills effectively selling green cards — is much, much greater. The Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation warned last year that the stapling-a-green-card approach would result in “inducing the enrollment of poor-quality foreign students in U.S. higher education institutions simply to obtain green cards.” This isn’t merely theoretical; a few years back the State Department official responsible for visa issuance told Congress that “a school in the United States can be found for even the poorest academic achiever . . . schools that actively recruit foreign students for primarily economic reasons, and without regard to their qualifications or intentions, may encourage such high-risk underachievers to seek student visa status as a ticket into the United States.” If that happens now, just imagine the increase in such activity that would occur if a green card were guaranteed at the end of the process.

What’s more, the whole debate over retaining foreign students is based on a dying model of higher education. Brick-and-mortar schools that students must travel to will soon go the way of typewriters and rotary phones; online education is the wave of the future. As Walter Russell Mead advises universities, “A new educational system is being born; get with the program or end up as road kill.” Under this new model, should someone in Bhutan who gets a master’s degree in dairy science from the University of Phoenix automatically be given a green card? If not, why not?

The whole discussion of immigration benefits for foreign students raises the question of why we’re admitting so many foreign students in the first place. All foreign students, even those paying full tuition out of their own pockets, receive massive subsidies in the United States, since universities are like subway lines: The price of admission doesn’t come close to covering costs. Among foreign doctoral students specifically, virtually all their funding comes from U.S. sources — often taxpayers. It’s largely a cheap-labor program for universities; as George Borjas has written: “Foreign students play the same role in staffing the research labs of American universities that Mexican illegal workers play in staffing the vast agricultural fields of California. Both groups of workers enter the country, substantially increase the supply of workers, lower wages in their respective occupations, and increase the profits and economic resources of the companies that hire them.”

But that’s an issue for another day. The question now is whether lawmakers will succumb to a phony “missile gap”–style panic about U.S. competitiveness created by lobbyists for tech companies that desire cheap labor. If we have a competitiveness problem — and I’m sure we do — lawmakers need to look to our dysfunctional fiscal and regulatory policies; importing more middling engineers from abroad isn’t going to fix anything. Unfortunately, congressmen who don’t even know how to switch on their computers swoon for this Johnny-can’t-do-math nonsense like teenage girls at a rock concert.

Ironically, the only thing that has prevented the passage of such measures is the Hispanic Caucus. They’ve held increases in skilled (mostly Asian) immigration hostage for years, wanting to trade them for amnesty for the overwhelmingly Hispanic illegal-alien population. That’s why, if Republicans win the presidency and full control of Congress in November, thus removing the Hispanic Caucus as an obstacle, one of the first things the 113th Congress might try to do is increase immigration in the midst of the worst economy and highest unemployment in generations. I think they’ll be in for a big surprise if they try.