Dr. Norm Matloff on The Immigration Hearings—Immigrants Did Not Invent The Smartphone

Dr. Norm Matloff writes to his email list

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on immigration on Tuesday, with the first session focusing on foreign tech workers and unauthorized immigrants. You can view or download the hearing here.

I had been expecting the usual arguments to be made, which they were, but there were definitely some quite interesting moments, some of which I'll discuss here. Indeed, among other things, I'd like to call attention to some points that even those present at the hearing may have missed.

What (pleasantly) surprised me is that a couple of the congresspersons on the committee seemed worried about displacement from Americans from STEM fields, and asked questions of the panel accordingly. Yet the two main panelists on tech immigration, Michael Teitelbaum and Vivek Wadha, answered the questions quite differently.

Michael stated, I think several times, that we must avoid having immigration policies that displace Americans from STEM and discourage talented young Americans to avoid careers in STEM. He also said that a bill giving green cards to foreign students in STEM would be overly broad—while some areas of STEM may have a "tight" labor market (the word he used instead of "shortage"), other STEM fields do not.

(He also said avoiding such harm would necessitate not giving out any more work visas than green cards. I would disagree in a certain sense, which I'll come back to below.)

Vivek, on the other hand, flatly dismissed the notion that skilled immigration policies harm Americans. He said "Every single study" shows that skilled immigrants are net creators of jobs. Though Vivek generally tends to speak in a grand, hyperbolic manner (in the hearing, he even said that if we bring in more skilled immigrants we will be able to produce "unlimited water"), for which I do not fault him, in this case it is not a responsible statement at all, in my opinion.

First of all, the main study cited by the industry lobbyists claiming a net job creation effect was so flawed that even the Wall Street Journal, a vociferous supporter of immigration in general and H-1B in particular, ran an excellent piece showing the severe methodological problems in the study. You can read the WSJ analysis at the link here where I add a few criticisms of my own. Actually, I'll add here that the job creation effect would be almost impossible to measure.

But even more importantly from my point of view, Vivek himself has written about the problems that older Americans have getting jobs in the tech field. Note carefully that he has stated that it is NOT just a matter of some older workers not having the latest skill sets; Vivek has said, correctly, that even if the American worker has the exact skill set sought by the employer, the employer will choose the younger one, as the younger one is cheaper. Since the data show that most H-1Bs are young, the nexus is clear. In other words, Vivek is well aware of the fact that there are indeed adverse impacts.

There's more in this regard. It's interesting in that during his testimony, Vivek held up a prop, a smartphone. Since he juxtaposed waving the prop with statements like "Immigrants are leading the charge in innovation" and "Immigrants will save us" (!), one might think that immigrants invented the smartphone. In actuality, the Android operating system was invented by U.S. natives (Andy Rubin, Rich Miner, Nick Sears and Chris White). I won't go into the iPhone history here, but similar statements obviously apply.

But put aside the question of natives vs. immigrants in the development of smart phones, and consider a different aspect. A few years ago, I was asked to talk to the chief aide of a certain politician on the Hill (which, for the record, I seldom do). Nice guy, but he emphasized that his boss would never vote for any kind of pro-U.S.-worker reform of H-1B. The reason, he said, was that "Mobile computing is coming on the horizon, and there will be plenty of tech jobs available for everyone."

Yet the effect of mobile has been diametrically opposite to what the aide envisioned: The industry is using things like Android as an excuse to hire H-1Bs! So, a former programmer who had been forced to take non-tech work at the time I talked to the aide, has no more luck getting a tech job now, in this supposedly job-rich environment that mobile has created.

Once again, it is an age issue. For instance, one of the subscribers to this e-mail list has about 15 years of experience doing sophisticated software work, and is just now putting the finishing touches on a very interesting Android app (on his own). Yet, he is unemployed.

That's why I take issue with Michael's formula mentioned above. As a demographer, he may be used to thinking in terms of equilibrium, but it just doesn't work that way here. Most of the people getting green cards, like the H-1Bs, are under 30, and thus they crowd out the older workers. (Not MUCH older; the person I cite above is under 40, I think.)

As I've pointed out before, a bill to give what have come to be called "STEM visas" to new foreign graduates of U.S. universities would thus be even worse, as that population is even more skewed to the under-30 range. "Green cards, not work visas" makes a great slogan, but if you think it through, you'll see it too is harmful to American workers.

One of the most common claims we hear from the industry lobbyists these days, echoed by the politicians (several times by President Obama), is that we are forcing foreign students to leave after they graduate. This is outrageously false. Though out of tens of thousands of people there may be exceptions, I'm just not seeing it at all. My department has had thousands of foreign graduate students, and I'm not aware of even a single case in which a foreign student was ever forced home.

Though Vivek didn't explicitly say we're forcing the foreign students to return home, he implied it in his written and verbal testimony. Yet in fact Wadha's own survey shows otherwise. He found that while some are indeed returning home, it's by choice (cultural preference, economic opportunities and so on). Interestingly, Committee Chair Goodlatte called him on that (around 4687 seconds into the video), and Vivek was forced to agree.

Even more interestingly, Vivek said something which is rather big but which I'd guess was little noticed by those in attendance: He said his foreign students only want to work in the U.S. two or three years and then return home. This is starkly counter to the political rhetoric we hear that "We shouldn't train the foreign students and then have them go home to work for our competitors." For the students Vivek is describing, we are given them DOUBLE training before they go home—first academic, then 2-3 years of valuable work experience, before they "go home and work for our competitors."

One comment, I think by Zoe Lofgren, provided me with some amusement. Given the current focus on tech immigration, more and more people are talking seriously of reducing family-based immigration—not of the husband-wife, parent-child relationship but of adult silbings (the so-called Fourth Preference). Some of the committee members insisted that family immigration not be cut (notably Rep. Judy Chu—the Chinese and Korean activists have always jealously guarded the Fourth Preference), and the following comment came out:

For years, the industry lobbyists have been saying, "The cofounders of Google, Intel, Yahoo! etc. were immigrants, and thus we should expand the H-1B program." Many people like me have pointed out that none of the cofounders they are referring to came to the U.S. as H-1Bs (formerly H-1) or foreign students. (There is also the point thst Andy Grove was NOT a founder of Intel, but in any case, he didn't come here under those programs either.)

Well, guess what—Lofgren used that as a reason why we should not cut family immigration!