On Stephen Moore’s ‘Brainiac’ Immigrants

By Jason Richwine on April 26, 2019

In praising the "brainiacs" who hold H-1B visas, Stephen Moore writes that "the firms that use these visas must affirm that they were not able to find comparably skilled American workers to do the jobs." That claim is generally false. Most firms are not even required to advertise the position before applying for an H-1B worker. (Recruiting Americans prior to applying for an H-1B is required only for employers deemed "H-1B dependent" or "willful violators".) Moore's piece has remained uncorrected on the Dallas News site for six days and counting.

The error is important because it touches on a key question about the H-1B program, and about "high-skill" immigration more generally: Are we really getting Einstein-level intellects with few American equivalents, or are firms simply importing run-of-the-mill college graduates to hold down wages? To support the Einstein theory, Moore cites the testimony of Bill Gates, who once claimed that each H-1B worker hired by Microsoft creates four new jobs.

The best data seem to contradict that anecdote. H-1B visas are distributed by lottery when the program is oversubscribed, so researchers can isolate the impact of acquiring an H-1B worker by comparing lottery winners with lottery losers. I previously wrote about the results of that study for NR:

If H-1B workers are truly exceptional talents for whom there are few American substitutes, then we would expect to see that lottery-winning companies increase their employment relative to the lottery losers by roughly the number of H-1B workers they receive. (In fact, if the more grandiose claims about immigrant productivity are true, then we would expect the lottery-winning companies to generate even more jobs beyond the ones that go to the H-1Bs.) Instead, both lottery-winning and lottery-losing firms ended up with employment levels that were statistically indistinguishable. Presumably, the losing companies just went ahead and hired someone who was not an H-1B.

Although the evidence is less robust, it also appears that lottery-winning companies lowered median wages and increased their profits relative to the lottery losers. So the lottery data are more consistent with the view that firms use the H-1B program to hire cheaper substitute workers from abroad, not to bring in the next Einstein.

No doubt there are some brainiacs who come to the United States on H-1B visas, but they don't seem to be representative of the program as a whole. This may be emblematic of a broader problem with our "high-skill" immigration programs. In my own work, I've found that immigrants with foreign college or advanced degrees have substantially lower levels of English literacy, numeracy, and computer skills compared to people with U.S. degrees. If we want to recruit genuine Einsteins, we need to overhaul the system to target them more directly.