Let's end the H-1B best-and-brightest nonsense

A leading critic of the H-1B visa program, Prof. Norman Matloff, is challenging tech industry assertions that visa holders represent "the best and the brightest." His paper for the Center for Immigration Studies attempts to prove this point through a statistical analysis of labor data.

I don't know why he bothered.

H-1B visa holders aren’t "the best and brightest." It's inside-the-beltway rhetoric that evaporates in two seconds of debate.

The labor data, in terms of wages, occupations and companies that use the visa, clearly shows that the vast majority of H-1B holders aren’t building rockets.

The more interesting question is the one Matloff asked in 1998. At a time when few were even aware of the visa and offshore outsourcing, it was Matloff, a University of California at Davis computer science professor, who warned of its potential consequences.

In testimony he gave ten years ago before a U.S. House subcommittee, he saw the H-1B visa as a potential punch in the gut to U.S. students. He wrote:

University students are beginning to be aware of this problem, and though computer science enrollment trends are currently on the upswing … in the future this may deter many of them from pursuing computer science majors.

Enrollments were indeed rising in 1998 as Matloff noted, and then plunged with the dot.com bust and have not recovered since. In every interview that I’ve done over the years with computer science professors, the reasons for this decline have remained consistent. It's seen as a lingering effect of the dot.com bust, offshore outsourcing and its close companion, the H-1B visa. (For enrollment details, see Computer Research Association data.)

Matloff argues with a Grapes of Wrath fervor about a struggle he sees between the powerful and the powerless; students, his students, who loose job opportunities to foreign workers, as well as older workers at risk of age discrimination.

There’s a lot more here, of course, to this issue. H-1B opponents say visas holders are cheap, time stamped labor and will speed offshoring. Proponents say more visas will keep jobs onshore and grow the economy.

But the question that Matloff raised in 1998 may even be more important today.

If the U.S. opens the door wide to foreign nationals, gives unfettered access to the labor market and increases the competitive labor pool, will it also discourage U.S. students from entering computer science and related fields?


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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