Most discussion of the H-1B work visa program focuses on IT, not suprising since the computer fields take a plurality of the visas. Yet H-1B's impact on science and academia is equally important, with the abuse being equally rampant (though, as with IT, fully legal). Enclosed below is a piece by Beryl Lieff Benderley in Science Careers, a publication of Science Magazine, highlighting this issue. It's startling but gratifying to see such a staid publication take such an un-PC, though correct, stance. (I've also enclosed a second article by Benderley.)[Taken for Granted: Brother, Can You Spare a Temporary Worker Visa?, By Beryl Lieff Benderly]
Many readers of this e-newsletter will recall that I've brought up the subject myself in various ways, most recently in connection with Douglas Prasher, the "almost-Nobelist" who is working as a van driver for a Toyota dealer. I urge you to read my entire posting here, as Prasher exemplifies what Ms. Benderley writes about in the enclosures even better than her own Dr. "Otto B. Doing-Better." In summary: Prasher's work was central to research that led to this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry, and one of the winners said he could well have been selected for the award himself. Yet he went through a series of jobs in science, with shorter and shorter duration and less and less security. In the end he was reduced to driving the van for a living.
The point is that Prasher is a victim of a crushing oversupply of scientists, in turn caused by a large influx imported from abroad under the H-1B program, just as Ms. Benderley describes. What Benderley probably doesn't know, though, is that all of this was deliberate. When the National Science Foundation was lobbying Congress to establish the H-1B program in the late 1980s, the NSF cited as a major goal holding down PhD salaries, which would be accomplished by flooding the labor market with H-1B PhDs. The NSF also noted that the low salaries would drive away American students from PhD programs, which is of course exactly what has happened. See Eric Weinstein's investigative reporting on this, here and quotes of it here.
Bottom line: The H-1B program is being used in academia for cheap labor, just like in IT. It's ruining the careers and lives of people like "Otto B. Doing-Better," even to the point of forcing a Nobel-level researcher into blue collar work to earn a living. And all this is occurring unseen behind the hype that "Johnnie can't do science" and the U.S. is on the verge of losing its technical edge.
Well, WHY is it unseen? Are Benderley and Weinstein and I really the only ones who know this? Of course not. Any academic with her eyes open knows it. Shirley M. Malcom, head of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, knows there is a huge oversupply of scientists, and surely understands the role of H-1B in it. She spoke of the oversupply on NPR (without explicitly mentioning H-1B); see How the U.S. Measures Up in Math and Science.[NPR Talk of the Nation, November 9, 2007]
But almost no one is willing to rock the boat, as the personal consequences would be severe. Though I must note that my own university has been remarkably tolerant of my gadfly writings on H-1B, even bestowing its Distinguished Public Service Award on me in part because of H-1B. But if for example Dr. Malcom had mentioned H-1B explicitly in that NPR segment, her days at AAAS likely would have been numbered, and she would been blocked from obtaining other positions of that type. Greg Zachary of the Wall Street Journal wrote some great pieces on H-1B in the mid-90s, then later changed 180 degrees; why the change of heart? Several academics who have been strongly H-1B have in the last year or so come out in favor of expanding the employer-sponsored green card program, in spite of that program having essentially the same adverse effects as H-1B.
Hal Salzman, whose Urban Institute report is cited by Benderley (see below), was on that show with Malcom, and he didn't mention H-1B either—in spite of the fact that he was the investigator on a 2001 congressionally-commissioned study which found that use of H-1Bs as cheap labor is rampant. Again, I believe that this reticence on his part is due to H-1B being a kind of Third Rail in the research world.
Meanwhile, those with huge vested interests in the program—academia, industry and last-but-not-least the immigration attorneys—have been flooding the press with PR, which is the source of the "Johnnie can't do science" perception. By the way, Benderley appears to be unaware that one report she cites, by NAP, was written by a researcher who has been quite partisan in favor of the industry and whose funding is suspected to come from the immigration lawyers group. See Stuart Anderson criticizes Miano study.
And these people, e.g. Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have Barack Obama's ear. Not coincidentally, Obama's Secretaries-designate of Commerce, DHS and Labor all are in favor of expanding H-1B and employer-sponsored green cards. Obama's own position paper, linked to in Benderley's article, might as well have been written by the industry, and may well have been.
And even though Obama's fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, has sponsored a good H-1B reform bill and Durbin was one of Obama's most active supporters in the election campaign, Obama doesn't seem to have been educated by Durbin very much, or worse, Obama sees that reform of H-1B is a political nonstarter. I'm sure the Durbin-Grassley bill will languish this coming year just as it did during the Bush years.
Voices like Lindsay Lowell, whose outstanding Urban Institute study with Hal Salzman is cited below by Benderley, are lost in the shuffle. Though UI is well-respected in DC and is especially valued by Democrats, you could knock on doors on the Hill all day and not find more than one or two staffers who are aware of the Lowell/Salzman report. Similarly you could talk to all the science and business reporters at the New York Times and likely not find any who know about Lowell/Salzman.
Nor for that matter would you find congressional staffers who are aware of Congress' own findings, in two of its commissioned reports (the one by NRC that Salzman contributed to, as mentioned, and another by GAO), that H-1B is used widely as a means of cheap labor—as reported by the employers themselves. You might find some staffers who know of a recent DHS study that found a substantial percentages of irregularities (some fraudulent, most not) in H-1B applications, but that is missing the real point, which is that most abuse of H-1B for cheap labor is fully legal, due to the loopholes, as pointed out in the GAO study.
The sad truth is that Congress hears what the monied and powerful want them to hear.
[Taken for Granted: Brother, Can You Spare a Temporary Worker Visa?, By Beryl Lieff Benderly] January 02, 2009
"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[More]