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Taken for Granted: Brother, Can You Spare a Temporary Worker Visa?

Four and a half years ago, a young scientist we’ll call Otto B. Doing-Better began what he thought would be his dream postdoctoral appointment. Otto is one of the tens of thousands of foreign scientific and technical workers in the United States on H-1B visas, which admit nonimmigrant skilled workers for a limited number of years. A lab chief we’ll call Manny Grants had promised to help him get the prestigious publications needed for a shot at a faculty post--and maybe even permanent residence in the United States.

Instead of the career he had hoped for, today Otto has a life in ruins, professionally and personally. His employment prospects are stymied, and his permission to stay in this country is about to run out. He sees no choice but to return to his native land and seek work outside of science. “I am a postdoc who has been ground up by the current system in U.S. academia, where most of us are foreigners who rely on visas to remain in this country,” he tells Science Careers.

Postdocs hired at U.S. universities have become, for some time now, a new kind of cheap labor … who are most of the time only allowed to do those experiments that please their bosses, and, on the other hand, cannot many times contribute to the creative scientific process.

--Otto B. Doing-Better

Professor Grants proved dictatorial and duplicitous when Otto “made interesting and reproducible findings,” the young scientist says. Some of these results “contradicted some of [Prof. Grants’] views.” The lab chief used his power, Otto says, to prevent their publication. He gave Otto no raises and then, citing funding difficulties, fired him. Lukewarm references kept Otto from moving to another lab, ultimately costing him the right to remain in this country, which depends on his staying employed. Most heartbreaking of all, Otto’s American-born child will stay here with his estranged wife, who has filed for divorce.

H-1B holders’ vulnerability to their employers’ whims is only one of the many features of this controversial visa that attract sharp criticism. Just about everyone with a stake in the system--American engineers, scientists, and IT professionals; high-tech executives and their lobbyists; influential U.S. senators and the Department of Homeland Security--finds fault with the program’s provisions, enforcement, or both.

Visa holders such as Otto complain of exploitation and abuse. But many American scientists and technical professionals blame the H-1B visa for allowing temporary foreign workers to drive down wages and displace them from jobs. Employers, meanwhile, denounce limits on the number of H-1B visas available, which they say keep them from finding the skilled employees they need.

In ordinary times, the controversy flares into public consciousness in the spring, during well-orchestrated industry lobbying and PR campaigns seeking more visas. This year, with unemployment mounting and degreed workers feeling the effects more strongly than in past recessions, the issue appears likely to grow much hotter than usual.

Missing Data

Complicating the debate, as usual, is a shortage of basic facts about the H-1B and its effect on the American scientific and technical labor market. Complete statistics are not collected on how many temporary foreign scientific and technical workers are in the country, where they work, and whether they leave the country when their visas expire or, as critics suggest, move into the illegal immigrant pool. One widely quoted report asserts a relationship between the presence of foreign workers and increased job opportunities for Americans, although another analysis debunks the claim. Recently, the number of available engineering positions has fallen as H-1B availability remained constant.

What those claiming a technical talent shortage lack in evidence, they make up for in well-funded persuasion. Indeed, the industry view has won over most national politicians and policymakers. The plan for science and technology proposed by the Obama campaign, for example, calls for “comprehensive immigration reform that improves our visa programs to attract some of the world's most talented people to America” and supports an increase in the number of foreign scientists and technical people permitted to study, work, and stay in the United States.

Thousands of Americans struggling to start or maintain scientific and technical careers are unlikely to support such a plan. The plan does, however, promise to answer some of Otto’s complaints by ensuring that “workers are less dependent on their employers for their right to stay in the country" and holding accountable employers "who abuse the system and their workers.”

The Obama document goes on to note that “while highly skilled immigrants make strong contributions to our domestic technology industry, there are Americans who could be filling those positions given appropriate opportunities for training.” These are encouraging words, but the statement doesn't go far enough: What about the thousands of Americans already able to fill those jobs without any further training? The United States routinely graduates several times more people with scientific and technical degrees than it employs in those fields, according to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008. Even without importing scientific and technical workers from overseas, these figures indicate, employers can find a large supply of skilled talent.

But employers would very likely have to pay these workers more than they pay temporary visa holders. The desire to pay lower wages--and not a talent shortage--is the real reason behind the demand for more H-1B visas, critics insist. And, though it may lack political clout, this view has some world-class intellectual backing. "There is no doubt that the [H-1B] program is a benefit to their employers, enabling them to get workers at a lower wage, and to that extent, it is a subsidy, ” the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, godfather of market economics, has been quoted as saying. “If you get a number of computer programmers who are moving to the United States, as we do under the H-1B program, … then computer programmers’ earnings are either going to be hurt or not rise as much as otherwise,” agreed Friedman’s fellow economics Nobelist and University of Chicago faculty colleague Gary Becker in a lecture.

Reaching for Reform

When the H-1B visa was established in 1990, it was "intended to fill jobs for a temporary amount of time while the country invested in American workers to pick up the skills they needed. … Unfortunately, the H-1B program is so popular that it's now replacing the U.S. labor force,” said Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) on the Senate floor in November 2007, according to a press report. "Some employers have abused the H-1B and L-1 temporary work visa programs, using them to bypass qualified American job applicants,” added Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in a statement. Recently, a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services found widespread fraud in the H-1B system.

But far more important and damaging than dishonesty, critics insist, are the loopholes and abuses clearly permitted by existing law. Indian outsourcing firms, for example, currently use large numbers of H-1B visas to bring workers into the country to train for jobs that are then moved overseas. In 2007, Grassley and Durbin co-sponsored a bill, as yet unpassed, that would increase protections for both American workers and H-1B visa holders.

As the recession deepens, bringing hiring freezes and furloughs to budget-strapped universities across the country and threatening the solvency of private-sector firms, supporters of the Grassley-Durbin proposals appear likely to press anew to pass the bill. At the very least, H-1B critics will have strong ammunition--in the form of high unemployment rates--against industry’s annual campaign to get lawmakers to raise the H-1B limit.

None of this, of course, is any help to current H-1B casualties like Otto, who is leaving the country embittered by an academic system he believes harms not just powerless individuals but science itself. “Postdocs hired at U.S. universities have become, for some time now, a new kind of cheap labor … who are most of the time only allowed to do those experiments that please their bosses, and, on the other hand, cannot many times contribute to the creative scientific process,” he says. His former lab chief “used his powerful position to impose his will and cover up some exciting results of mine, which could have moved the field of cancer research forward.” The H-1B, Otto argues, made this possible.

If the Obama Administration truly wishes to inspire a new generation of Americans “to excel in, and embrace, science and engineering” without excluding "innovators from overseas” as its science and technology document proclaims, then it needs to craft programs that protect both the many Americans hoping for decent-paying science and technology jobs and the foreign scientists coming to this country to work and learn. An overhaul of the H-1B is an obvious place to start.

Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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