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Norman Matloff tells what's wrong with the H-1B visa program

The longtime H-1B nemesis talks about what's wrong with the program, why it's tough to be 40 in IT, and what he tells computer science students.

By Patrick Thibodeau
September 8, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When Norman Matloff warned Congress about the H-1B visa program in 1998, he was one of the first to do so. His testimony, titled "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage," helped frame the national debate over the H-1B visa. He remains the leading critic of the program, which has heavy support in Congress.

How did you get involved in the H-1B debate? Even in 1998, there were severe problems that were masked by all the hoopla about the dot-com boom. There were a number of people who just weren't able to get work, and these were generally people who were over 40, many well qualified in the classical sense -- years of significant experience. It was clear that what the industry wanted was cheap labor. One of the ways to get cheap labor is to hire young, and if you run out of young people to hire that are U.S. citizens and permanent residents, you turn to hiring young foreign people. Almost all the H-1Bs are young.

What drew your attention to the situation? I'm very deeply immersed in the Chinese immigrant community [Matloff speaks Mandarin, and his wife is an immigrant from Hong Kong] and saw a lot of people that were hired on H-1 visas [the predecessor of the H-1B program] who were not really good. So I had suspicions.

Don't your connections with the immigrant community put pressure on you to favor more relaxed policies on immigration? People who are immigrants are harmed by H-1Bs just like the natives are, even the ones who are originally H-1Bs. The minute they get a green card, they are somewhat less employable, and when they hit age 35 and 40, they are a lot less employable, just like the natives are.

Dossier

Norman Matloff
Name: Norman Matloff
Title: Professor of computer science
Favorite book: "Any kind of biography. One memorable book: Serious: The Autobiography, by John McEnroe."
Pet Peeve (technology edition): "Everybody ought to use Linux." (Windows gets in his way.)

Pet Peeve (people edition): "People who aren't thinking. They follow like sheep."

I will assume you have some foreign students in your computer science classes. At the undergraduate level, the number of foreign students is small. The graduate level is different. This was all planned for by the National Science Foundation. Their concern was that Ph.D. salaries were too high, and they said that they were going to remedy it by bringing in a lot of foreign students. Swelling the labor pool will reduce the salaries or reduce the growth in salaries, and that was at the same time NSF was pushing Congress to enact the H-1B program. NSF also said at the time that by limiting salaries, Americans would be dissuaded from pursing graduate degrees and, of course, that's exactly what happened. So now you see only 50% of the Ph.D.s in computer science go to Americans.



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