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Silicon Valley's H-1B immigration position has some holes

Matt Weinberger | Dec. 5, 2014
The key is that H-1B visa lets foreign skilled workers stay in the U.S. for up to six years.

In November, President Obama outlined a sweeping executive order that would overhaul the immigration system with provisions that would provide work permits for up to five million undocumented workers and provide for more software engineers and entrepreneurs to work in the U.S. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has been pushing for immigration reform for many years, claiming a labor shortage at a crucial period of market growth.

And yet, the technology industry isn't happy with the President's plan, saying that it  wants more sweeping reforms to bring in even more workers from abroad. On paper, that sounds great. America is the land of opportunity, after all, and letting more skilled technology workers into the country during a tech labor shortage seems like a no-brainer.

The problem: There's a strong argument to be made that there's not really a talent shortage. In fact, there's a lot to support the notion that there are more Americans willing and ready to work than ever. So what's really going on? (If you had "greed" or "obliviousness" on your bingo card, collect your prize at the front.)

The key is the H-1B visa that lets foreign skilled workers stay in the U.S. for up to six years. The number of visas is limited to 65,000 per year (85,000 if you count the extra 20,000 set aside for advanced degree graduates of U.S. schools). Since there's a limit, hiring from outside the country is a zero-sum game, since every foreign worker hired for a startup is one fewer hired at another. Silicon Valley wants more of these foreign workers — Facebook's even started a bipartisan lobbyist organization called to push for a higher quota and a streamlined path to the treasured green card, which would free up more H-1Bs for more non-citizens. 

This is only an issue if you're not searching within America's borders for your next programming talent. A recent paper by the Economic Policy Institute concludes that only half of all American college graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) get hired into their fields every year, and when adjusted for inflation, the IT industry only pays about what it did in 1999. 

All of that implies that tech firms, in general, aren't offering enough money to attract Americans. (For all the talk of overpaid Google interns, you have to consider the average outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.) Rather than raise wages, they're trying to get foreign skilled workers instead. And don't forget that for an H-1B holder loss of work means loss of visa . While President Obama is promising reforms that would let these workers at least change employers, being out of a job even temporarily means running the risk of losing legal status. The result is that Silicon Valley essentially locks its foreign workforce into tightly-controlled ecosystem of indentured servitude.


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