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Two sides of the H-1B

Some years ago, I did quite a bit of writing about the intersection of science and religion, which offered some surprising insights into the lives of scientists in this country and abroad. I’ve been away from that beat for a while now, but last month another intriguing item came my way as I perused the Internet, this time from India: the image of the seven-armed, apparently Hindu, Goddess of Visas. Having traveled in and reported from India, I’ve seen numerous images of many-armed divine multitaskers, and I know that the Hindu pantheon includes a vast array of holy figures. Never before, though, had I known of one devoted to so specific a concern as the high-skill guest worker visa that has brought many thousands of South Asians and others to work in America’s tech companies and university laboratories.

This image appears not on an altar or a temple wall but in an online-only exhibit of works by Indian artists sponsored by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Titled “H-1B,” it launched on 29 November 2015 to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of that and other employment-based visas included in the Immigration Act of 1990.

The snappy, slangy, often incendiary prose suits the authors’ goal of reaching a popular audience as well as their anger at the labor conditions that have resulted from the widespread use of high-skill guest worker visas.

According to notes by Ruee Gawarikar, the artist who painted her, the blue-faced deity holds in one of her hands a “mighty keyboard” while another “showers the ultimate blessing on her devotees—the elusive H-1B visa,” and the goddess’s feet rest on “heaps of documents and on the heads of other failed” visa applicants. “The ultimate multitasker, she leads men smoothly through the long [application] process, influencing the minds of visa officers and showing dreams of a better life,” Gawarikar writes.

The goddess is, by the way, “a humorous take on the otherwise tedious and often anxiety-ridden process of applying for a work visa [done in a] style [that] is exaggerated, ironic and dramatic.” But even if the goddess herself is an invention, the emotions she expresses are doubtlessly real enough for those hoping to obtain an H-1B.

Another point of view

To my knowledge, the Smithsonian has yet to do an exhibit about the H-1B and other temporary work visas from the viewpoint of Americans working in the organizations affected by large numbers of guest workers, including tech companies and university laboratories. Last year, Disney and Southern California Edison attracted media attention by replacing longtime domestic workers with lower-paid guest workers and forcing the laid-off workers to train their replacements. (Similar cases had been happening for years.) The number of H-1B visas available to companies is limited by an annual cap, but universities and other nonprofit organizations can have as many as they wish and often use them to hire postdocs. This unlimited access to labor, according to labor market economists, contributes to low pay and glutted job markets and, as we've reported, has also led to abuses by university officials.

Anxiety and tedium clearly afflict affected domestic workers, and a book that appeared in November, Sold Out: How High-Tech Billionaires and Bipartisan Beltway Crapweasels Are Screwing America's Best and Brightest Workers, presents their side quite vividly. As its title reveals, this is not the sort of measured, temperate, academic treatment of labor force issues usually highlighted on this page. Truth be told, I hesitated at first to review it, thinking it would offer more polemic than analysis. One of its authors, after all, is Michelle Malkin, the flamboyant and controversial conservative columnist, author, and cable TV talking head. The other is John Miano, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank with the tag line “low-immigration, pro-immigrant,” and founder of the advocacy group the Programmers Guild, which according to its website “advances the interests of technical and professional workers in information technology (IT) fields.” In 2005, Miano left an 18-year career as a computer programmer after he, like many others, ran up against the pervasive IT industry discrimination against “older” workers (over approximately age 35). In his second career as a lawyer, he has brought successful court challenges to federal policy on high-skill immigration.

I reconsidered, however, upon learning that eminent H-1B expert Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis, called the book “outstanding” despite its “strident, muckraking style,” and journalist Patrick Thibodeau of Computerworld, whose reporting I greatly respect, praised “its depth and ample documentation” and the way “it backs up its assertions and gives H-1B supporters a high threshold to cross.”  

After reading it, I must say that I agree with Matloff’s and Thibodeau’s assessments. The snappy, slangy, often incendiary prose suits the authors’ goal of reaching a popular audience as well as their anger at the labor conditions that have resulted from the widespread use of high-skill guest worker visas. No matter how overheated Malkin and Miano’s rhetoric may become, however, they never let emotion get in the way of solid research and analysis, and their 116 pages of supporting documents and footnotes cite sources from across the political and ideological spectrum, all the way from the conservative Breitbart News Network to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that aims to “include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions,” according to its website.

Follow the (political) money

Matloff particularly recommends a section of chapter three that dismembers the claim, often repeated by economic interests seeking to increase the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) labor supply and thus lower labor costs, that H-1B workers create jobs for Americans. (We have also previously discussed this assertion.) In addition, the authors skillfully dismantle a number of the other favorite, but equally dubious, arguments used by economic interests favoring increased high-skill guest workers: that the United States suffers a shortage of technical or scientific talent; that employers must seek to hire Americans before hiring H-1B workers; that H-1B workers must receive the same pay as Americans; that H-1B workers are likely to establish businesses that employ Americans; and more. Of course, many foreign scientific and technical personnel make valuable contributions in the United States, but that doesn’t negate the fact that, in the opinion of many informed observers, the current nonimmigrant guest worker system needs a thorough overhaul.

Malkin and Miano go on, using shrewd reporting and spot-on anecdotes, to refute arguments put forward in favor of a number of other policies used to increase the supply of foreign technical and scientific workers, such as F student visas, L business visas, and the Optional Practical Training program. These policies also suppress wages without strengthening the U.S. workforce, they argue. 

Where this book really shines, however, is in its impressively detailed probe into the politics of immigration “reform.” The authors document how expensive lobbying and strategic donations have brought politicians of both major parties and all ideological persuasions to support increased high-skill migration, despite its deleterious effects. They do this in my own favorite section of the book, chapter 12, “Exposed: How Beltway Crapweasels Cooked Up the Gang of Eight’s ‘Comprehensive Immigration Reform.’” The authors characterize that complicated, nearly 1200-page bill as “corrupt to its core” and “stuffed with favors and preferences” inserted by senators receiving donations from a wide range of special interests, very prominent among them tech companies and outsourcing firms clamoring for ever more cheap guest workers. Lest the early-career scientists struggling to gain career footholds in the glutted academic labor market feel left out of the lobbying jamboree, the bill also includes “an exemption to allow public universities to displace U.S. workers with H-1B nonimmigrants,” the authors note, which would further depress the pay and opportunities available to early-career university scientists.

As the book makes painfully clear, American scientific and technical workers have no divine protector watching out for their career interests, nor very many elected human ones keeping them in mind while constructing the immigration policies that so strongly influence the opportunities available to domestic talent. The reason, Malkin and Miano write: “There is no Laid-Off American Worker Lobby to funnel cash into D.C. coffers.” Nor is anyone making large donations on behalf of underpaid and stymied early-career researchers trapped by a shortage of opportunities. As long as politicians continue do the bidding of large corporations and institutions rather than look out for the voters who elect them, the book shows, American tech and scientific workers struggling in intentionally overcrowded labor markets won’t have a prayer.

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