Editor's Note: President Obama's executive order on immigration announced last night included several implications for H1B visas. Commentator Gary J. Beach, former publisher of CIO.com and CIO magazine and author of "The U.S. Technology Skills Gap," shares his opinions on why the H1B visa debate is a scapegoat for a much broader challenge facing the United States.
Seven years ago I traveled to the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan to speak at a gathering of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers. Back then, as now, I looked at the H1B visa as a Band-Aid solution to an issue that needs a tourniquet.
One of my slides that evening called for disbanding the H1B visa. My rationale, which I thought I explained in my presentation but clearly had not, was to abolish the H1B annual visa cap and allow an unlimited number of foreign nationals work in America without worry of deportation.
As I finished my talk, I invited the audience to join me in a conversation about my comments. Immediately one distinguished professor, clearly of Indian descent, approached the microphone and said, "Mr. Beach, if your country followed the H1B advice you have shared with us 50 percent of the faculty of the school of engineering would have to leave. America would be cutting its nose to spite its face."
Before I could try to explain that he misunderstood my remarks, he and nearly 60 other people walked out of the auditorium.
Flash Forward to Immigration Reform
I thought of that evening when I read press reports of President Obama's executive order on immigration reform. While Obama's comments last night only briefly alluded to the controversial H1B visa program making it, the President has said recently that his plans call for making it, "more efficient to encourage more folks to stay here."
Sounds benign. Almost like inviting guests to your home to stay the weekend. Or six years.
Efficiency, however, isn't the biggest problem with the H1B visa program. Far from it. While politicians will continue to frame the H1B visa issue as a jobs-creation initiative, for a nation that employs 155 million people, the 85,000 H1B visas represent exactly .0004 percent of America's workforce. That's not even a drop in the workforce bucket.
No, the biggest problem with the H1B visa program is that it is a high-profile scapegoat issue that deflects national attention away from a much thornier structural challenge confronting America: the state of K-16 public education in the United States.
Read the following paragraph and try to determine when it was written:
That was the opening paragraph of a 1983 U.S. Department of Education report entitled "A Nation at Risk." Decades later, Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, commenting on the abysmal scores of American students in global math and science assessment tests, said , "we can quibble or we can face the brutal truth: we are being out-educated." The headline to a New York Times editorial board editorial was equally brutal when it said, "The United States, Falling Behind."
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