An Indian reader asks, "Aren't Immigrants Just Taking The Jobs Americans Are Too Stupid To Do?"; Norm Matloff Replies

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A skeptical Indian reader, Ram Potukuchi, wrote in to ask:

I read with interest your views on immigration—that it is not beneficial. As far as chain migration immigration and illegal immigration, you are probably correct. However, I would like to hear your views on these facts.

Immigrants (the majority from India) make up at least 28% of the engineers, scientists, computer programmers in this country. They also probably make up at least 5% of the doctors. Many of these doctors complete their residencies in hospitals American doctors would not train at (such as DC General Hospital in Washington D.C.). The doctors tend to practice in areas that American doctors would not want to practice in (i.e. black and Hispanic areas, rural areas). While there may be a glut in physician supply, there is a shortage of doctors for poor people. Indian medical labor has been filling this gap for the past thirty years, a fact never mentioned on your website.

As for the other technical areas (engineering, computers, etc) the reality is that much of it is handled by Indians (or other immigrants). American students are weak in science and engineering, and America has to recruit to fill in the gaps. America has been recruiting these people for over thirty years. (My father was one of them, that's why I'm living in the U.S.) Even today at companies like The Boeing Company, it is very difficult to recruit American-born engineers in certain specialities (like microwave engineering, for example). The immigrants who get these jobs are not "cheap labor" as you suggest (starting salaries for an M.S. at $120,000 a year, much higher than the American family income). The immigrant engineers are not "displacing" Americans; there are few if any Americans to fill these jobs. I gave you one example (Boeing) but I could give you others (TRW, Lockheed, etc.). In Silicon Valley immigrants make up 40% of the "high-tech" workforce and these jobs pay a starting salary of $60,000 and the wages go up. They also are not "displacing" anybody, the American workforce as a whole cannot do this work. I doubt that many (or even any) of your "think-tank" writers has any idea what goes on in the computer, medical, or engineering fields. If you did you would have to explain away facts like these. If you don't believe what I write, go to the aerospace companies or Silicon Valley or inner-city and rural health clinics and find out for yourself.

Also, it should be noted that if a company like Boeing is doing well, it "trickles down" to all the workers at Boeing (assemblers, technicians, managers, etc.) In that sense these immigrants help the economy, much more than your "ivory tower" sociological theories. America is the world leader in technology yet American students are, at best, mediocre in science and mathematics. Since the business and government leaders know this, they keep importing people. The people in charge really don't pay attention to your theories—you write articles for each other, and another generation of technical help comes into the U.S.

We asked Norm Matloff to reply:

The author here has trotted out several of the tried and true shibboleths concocted by the computer industry lobbyists. I'll respond in brief here, and refer the reader to my updated congressional testimony, for details.

The author first points out that a substantial number of high-tech workers in this country are immigrants. True, but misleading, as his implication is that without those immigrants the jobs would be unfilled, which is not the case. Actually, 30% of our nation's small motels are owned by immigrants. Does the author really believe that without Indians we would not have motels?

The fact is that we are greatly underutilizing our own workers trained in the computers area. For example, 20 years after graduation from college, only 19% of computer science majors are still employed as programmers. This compares, for instance, to a figure of 57% of civil engineering majors who are still working as civil engineers 20 years after leaving school. Many were forced out of the field by the rampant age discrimination in this industry. It is they who should be filling these jobs, not immigrants.

On the other end of the age scale, fewer than half of new graduates in computer science get programming jobs. The rest are shunted into semitechnical work like customer support, while the H-1Bs are hired for the programming.

I do believe that we should facilitate the immigration of "the best and the brightest" from around the world, but most of the foreign computer workers are not in that category at all. INS statistics show, for example, that 75% of the H-1B visa workers in the computer area make less than $55,000 per year, hardly "genius" pay for this profession, which can run to $100,000 and more.

The author mentions engineers at Boeing. Since I am a computer scientist and not an electrical engineer, I cannot comment in detail. But it is irrelevant, since the vast majority of high-tech H-1Bs are computer programmers, not engineers. For example, among H-1Bs, those with computer science degrees outnumber those with electrical engineering degrees by a ratio of 15-to-1.

That by the way is also the reason why the author's claim that "Americans are weak in science and math" is irrelevant—one does not use science and math in programming.

For the record, his claim is also incorrect. American test scores in international comparisons in science and math are negatively impacted by our large underclass, which the East Asian nations do not have. U.S. states which do not have the dilemma of teaching a large underclass (a major component of which, by the way, is immigrants), such as Iowa, Nebraska and Utah, have test scores comparable to those of South Korea et al. The U.S. has double the per-capita number of engineers that S. Korea does, and is second in the world in this regard, after Israel. Oddly, the author says a good a source of programmers and engineers is India—a country whose test scores would be abysmal if one included the nation's 400 million illiterates. Come on, you can't have it both ways.

I would also point out that Boeing is one of the worst examples the author could cite, as their expressed goal is to save on salary costs. A Boeing representative at an industry-sponsored "high-tech shortage" conference told me that Boeing does not even bother to recruit new graduates of California universities, as they are too expensive.

If the author does not believe the H-1Bs are paid less on average than comparable Americans, he should read the studies performed at UCLA and Cornell University which show the wage exploitation—with both studies being authored by prominent immigrant advocates. And one doesn't even need studies, as the exploitation is clear from basic economic principles: Due to the de facto indentured servitude of most H-1Bs, they cannot get higher pay by changing employers or by threatening to do so. Thus by definition, on average they cannot get as high a salary as they would if they were able to move freely about in the labor market.

June 06, 2001