Immigrant tech geeks and U.S. jobs
By Suzy Khimm
Hello, all -- happy to be guest-blogging here again. I’m Suzy Khimm, and I cover national politics for the Washington bureau of Mother Jones. While Ezra's away this week, I’ll be mostly focusing on immigration policy issues, hoping to cut through the Sturm und Drang that has dominated the debate this summer. For shorter takes, I'm also on Twitter.
Without further ado:
The $600 million border security bill that President Obama signed into law this month hasn't drawn much attention amid the din about "anchor babies" who may become "terror babies" radicalized at Islamic centers near Ground Zero. That's partly because both parties have shifted to the right on immigration and embraced -- or at least acquiesced to -- the border-hawk measures in the new law, which include money for border guards, federal agents and surveillance drones. The lack of controversy is also likely due to the fact that the bill is self-funded: It's entirely paid for by a huge hike in visa fees on companies that hire large numbers of foreign workers who've immigrated to the United States.
The fee hike disproportionately affects highly skilled workers from Indian tech companies, which are up in arms about the measure. The law will raise fees for the H1B visa program from $320 per visa application to $2,000 for firms with more than 50 workers who employ more than 50 percent of their employees from overseas -- criteria that are much more likely to apply to foreign tech companies with U.S. outposts than, say, IBM or Apple. Needless to say, Indian officials also aren't too happy with Washington about the new law, alleging that the visa fee hike is discriminatory and could violate World Trade Organization rules.
So why are Indian tech firms being singled out? There doesn't seem to be a very clear answer, other than the fact that the money needed to come from somewhere and that Sen. Chuck Schumer, a lead sponsor of the measure, saw these foreign firms as a prime scapegoat for crowding out jobs for U.S. citizens.
Taking a protectionist turn, the New York Democrat slammed Infosys, the Indian software giant, as a "chop shop" that exploits the United States by refusing to recruit enough Americans for high-paid tech jobs. Schumer's basic argument is that such jobs should go to U.S. citizens rather than temporary immigrant workers -- in other words, another iteration of the "immigrants take our jobs" line that's a perennial favorite with the anti-immigration camp.
But such thinking assumes that short-term immigrants are displacing a ready pool of American workers to fill these high-tech jobs. It also assumes that these new visa barriers won't dissuade foreign companies from setting up shop in the United States in the first place and that the economic contributions of short-term immigrants aren't really worth the costs they incur.
All that may well be the case, but coming to such a conclusion would demand a sober, comprehensive analysis of the U.S. labor market's needs that doesn't really seem to be getting much airtime in Congress or elsewhere. Given the abiding concerns about jobs amid a lingering recession, it may be the time to reform the country's visa and legal immigration system if it would help our economic recovery. This could entail bigger barriers to entry and smaller quotas for work visas. But it could also entail more readily available visas for highly skilled foreign entrepreneurs who want to bring their talents to the United States and for short-term foreign workers who can inject new life into certain sectors of the economy -- ultimately creating more jobs for U.S. citizens.
Basically, these are costs and benefits that need be weighed holistically, without arbitrarily picking off a particular industry because it fits into a readymade populist argument about jobs and immigration.
Suzy Khimm is a political reporter for the Washington bureau of Mother Jones.