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Live From D.C., It's High-Skill Immigration Reform!

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

In our nation's capital, the immigration debate is in full swing. Presidential statements, congressional hearings, senatorial proclamations, and high-toned media figures have endeavored to enlighten the nation about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) issues. These advocates have emphasized America's purportedly dire shortage of scientifically and technically trained workers and the apparently magical power of immigrants to create jobs for Americans.

Foreign-born scientists and engineers have indeed made countless notable contributions as researchers and entrepreneurs. But the accolades from some politicians and pundits have reached such enthusiastic heights as to require some countercommentary to put their claims in proper perspective. Unfortunately, the commentators perhaps best equipped for that task—the crack analytical team of Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler—no longer present their "Really? with Seth and Amy" segment on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update news show. But never fear! The dauntless Science Careers news team hereby offers our own "Really?"s.

Really, Senators? Does it make more sense to pursue policies that will further flood the STEM labor market and do even more damage to the incentives for domestic innovators and entrepreneurs?

Crisis level

First up are comments by Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT) on 29 January, as he and a group of senatorial colleagues introduced the Immigration Innovation Act, also known by its cool, science-y nickname, "I-Squared." The bill is "designed to address the shortage of high-skilled labor we face in this country," which "has reached a crisis level," Hatch declared. "For too long, our country has been unable to meet the ever-increasing demand for workers trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—or STEM—fields."

Really, Senator Hatch?! So is the National Science Board's authoritative report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, as well as preceding volumes in the biennial series, wrong in its finding that the nation produces three times as many STEM degrees as there are STEM jobs? Is the American Chemical Society's (ACS’s) survey showing "record highs in the unemployment rates" of newly graduating chemists at all degree levels also mistaken? Presumably, we also should not trust Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing unusually high jobless rates for engineers. What about recent tech company layoffs that, in the words of IEEE's publication The Institute, "eliminate thousands of jobs”? And are the many experienced American engineers who are having such great difficulty finding new work just imagining things?

Perhaps, Senator, you missed the Senate testimony by Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.: "[S]killed immigrants … can displace U.S. workers, as has happened in the technology/engineering sector," she said. "Our current admissions system … does not protect U.S. workers from unfair competition, nor ensure that America is bringing in the kind of workers that are needed, as opposed to simply enabling U.S. employers to bypass U.S. workers. A growing body of research indicates that … the claims of a general shortage of the so-called STEM workers are exaggerated. Our colleges and universities are turning out more degree holders in these fields than there are job openings, and there is persistent high unemployment in STEM occupations."

Maybe you didn't catch Harvard Law School immigration expert Michael Teitelbaum's testimony at a recent congressional hearing that "the evidence does not support claims of generalized shortages of STEM workers in the US workforce. … Proposals to expand the number of visas for STEM fields should focus carefully and flexibly on those fields that can be shown to be experiencing excess demand relative to supply in the U.S. labor market." Or maybe you haven't seen ACS’s recent report calling "the number of career opportunities … insufficient to accommodate those qualified for and desiring entry."

In fact, Senator, the nation's supposed skill shortage is so overblown that one engineer who recently said he's "looking for work" is Adam Steltzner. Can't place the name? He's the "Elvis Guy" with an engineering physics Ph.D. who helped lead the team that designed last summer's thrilling Curiosity Mars lander.

Seeking the reason

"It is critical," Hatch's remarks continued, "that we not only recognize this shortage of high-skilled workers but also understand why it exists. Increasingly, enrollment in U.S. universities in the STEM fields comes from foreign students." Really, Senator? You want to know why experts think so many of America's high-performing math and science students—who, research shows, are both numerous and among the "best and brightest" in the world—do not endeavor to spend long, penurious years preparing for science and technology careers?

Maybe it's the stunted career prospects available in the overcrowded labor market that have caused an "internal brain drain" of talented Americans from science and technology to other, more rewarding careers. Or maybe it's the fact that tech companies are often loath to hire—or even retain—Americans older than 35 or 40 that encourages students to pursue non-STEM careers. Or perhaps there's another cause: public universities that deal with budget cuts by seeking international students, who pay high out-of-state tuition, in place of lower-paying in-state Americans.

Jobs for Americans?

The nation's many unemployed or underemployed scientists and engineers need not worry, according to Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL), another I-Squared sponsor. "This reform is as much about modernizing our immigration system as it is about creating jobs," he explained. "It'll help us attract more highly skilled workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, which will help our unemployed, underemployed or underpaid American workers find better jobs."

Really, Senator? Greatly increasing the number of H-1B temporary worker visas, as your bill proposes, will create employment opportunities for Americans? This will happen even though the top 10 users of H-1B visas are firms whose business is outsourcing American jobs? Bringing additional, low-paid temporary workers to fill the few remaining domestic jobs will somehow get Americans hired?

Rubio is not alone in divining exceptional job-creating powers in degreed immigrants. Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times cites research finding "every additional 100 foreign-born workers in science and technology fields … associated with 262 additional jobs for U.S. natives." Really, Mr. Brooks? Doesn't any marginally competent student know that association does not equal causation? Isn't it possible that foreign tech workers are "associated" with high levels of American employment because technology jobs cluster in areas with strong employment? Wouldn't hiring qualified Americans (of whom there is an ample supply in most STEM fields) for those positions be "associated" with just as many additional jobs?

Consider that what you're really claiming is that the nationality of the worker holding a particular position, rather than the existence of the job itself, influences a job's economic effect. Mr. Brooks, haven't you heard that recent research on immigration and employment in Australia found no discernible job-creating superpowers among degreed immigrants? In fact, a Monash University study found that Australia's policy of encouraging skilled immigration during an economic downturn has "had a harmful impact on the level of employment, participation in the labour market and the working conditions of other Australians, particularly young people."

How many geniuses?

On 29 January, another bipartisan group of senators released a framework for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a proposal to "staple a green card" to every STEM graduate degree earned at an American university. In a statement, they explained that "[i]t makes no sense to educate the world's future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy."

Really, senators? Does it make more sense to pursue policies that will further flood the STEM labor market and do even more damage to the incentives for domestic innovators and entrepreneurs?

"You can't have too many geniuses," opines Representative Zoe Lofgren (D–CA). Really, Congresswoman? Research by Harvard University economist George Borjas shows that, in fact, you can: If your goal is to incentivize talented people to do important research and innovation, overcrowding their fields stalls productivity and forces many able people out.

Real problems and real solutions

Our real problems are high unemployment and an incentive structure that drives gifted Americans away from STEM careers. So what can policymakers do about those? They might start by shaping immigration policy to fit real national interest rather than the interests of employers seeking low-cost, disposable labor, and the interests of universities seeking top-paying international students for their classrooms and labs.

ACS suggests that "the best international students [be] encouraged to enroll [at U.S. universities] while at the same time there is an active recruiting for qualified domestic students." A recent study in The Economic Journal proposes that "visa restrictions for foreign students should not be applied uniformly or on the basis of financial means; they ought to account for student-quality differences." Immigration scholar and computer science professor Norman Matloff recommends, in an article at Bloomberg, that, "Rather than offering work visas and green cards to all foreign students attaining U.S. postgraduate degrees, legislation should focus on facilitating the immigration of top talent."

See, imagining a sensible and reality-based policy that would help strengthen career paths for America's excellent homegrown STEM talent isn't that hard. Really, you could do it if you tried.

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