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Winners and losers from President Obama’s immigration plan

President Barack Obama’s proposed changes to the immigration system carry good news for some foreign researchers, as a Science Insider post has noted. It’s also good news for foreign tech workers and some employers—that, anyway, is the view of University of California, Davis, computer science professor Norman Matloff. But for American tech workers, Matloff believes, the news is not so good. “[Obama’s] proposals have something for the employers, something for the foreign workers, but nothing to help American workers,” especially the beleaguered so-called older ones: those above age 35. Matloff’s views on the impact on tech workers aside, the impact on scientists seems likely to be benign.

Three of the president’s proposals target tech, Matloff notes: providing work permits for H-1B workers’ spouses; expanding the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows foreign students to work in the United States; and allowing green card applicants more freedom to change jobs. Matloff expects the resulting increase in the number of foreign workers competing for domestic jobs to hurt American applicants and reduce pay. “This is especially true in that the foreign workers are overwhelmingly young, thus exacerbating the rampant age discrimination that we already have in the tech world,” he writes.

The changes seem unlikely to have much impact on science (as opposed to tech) labor markets.

—Beryl Lieff Benderly, Jim Austin

The OPT program has been singled out by critics because some tech companies advertise jobs specifically to those with OPT status, seemingly excluding domestic workers. The H-1B program is also controversial in that prominent CEOs often seek higher H-1B visa caps. Tech-worker advocates argue that such changes are unnecessary and will drive down salaries and displace American tech workers.

The president’s executive order doesn’t increase the number of H-1B workers, but it does change the rules so that some H-1B workers (and their spouses) can get portable work permits soon after their I-140 case is approved, instead of waiting for the visa to be awarded—which (for those from India and China in the EB-2 category and many others in EB-3) can take years. That’s the sole bright spot Matloff sees for U.S. workers: Allowing some workers more job mobility may reduce employers’ propensity to bypass American applicants in favor of foreigners, because “for many tech employers the appeal of hiring foreign workers is to have not just cheap workers but even more important, immobile ones.” That change could also encourage higher wages overall by allowing those workers to accept offers from other companies soon after their status is approved. That change is not likely to matter though, because industry lobbyists will likely get it killed before it is enacted, Matloff speculates.

Overall, Obama’s speech showed notable and commendable compassion for the plight of those living and working in the country illegally but little regard for the plight of American tech workers, Matloff writes, especially the experienced people the industry discards as too old. Were the administration interested in improving their lot, Matloff suggests, it would enforce age discrimination laws and “the section of green card law (note: NOT H-1B law) that states that the Secretary of Labor must ascertain that employer-sponsored immigration does not adversely impact American workers.” The administration could return the OPT to the 12 months written in law, instead of expanding it further as the executive order vaguely proposes. Industry would, of course, oppose such measures.

The changes seem unlikely to have much impact on science (as opposed to tech) labor markets. For foreign science trainees, the OPT law serves a useful function—allowing them to stay and work in the United States during breaks in their studies—and while the nature of the proposed expansion isn’t clear, it seems unlikely to displace domestic scientists from jobs. The order’s NIW provisions will allow more foreign workers (including scientists) to decide where to work, which, as Matloff observes, could raise salaries. The executive order includes no increase in H-1B quotas—that, it seems clear, requires legislation—so the main numerical effect is to allow spouses of H-1B workers to obtain work permits. The limits of the president’s executive powers aside (because those have never been clear to nonexperts), other actions that could have been taken—such as automatically granting green cards to foreign advanced-degree science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates of U.S. universities, regardless of field—could have had much more dire consequences for glutted scientific labor markets, like the one for life scientists with graduate degrees.

You can read Matloff’s observations here.

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