A computer science professor's never-ending H-1B fight

Norman Matloff's take on the continuing employment conflict

Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, appeared in 1998 before a U.S. House committee and delivered testimony titled "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage.". It was that hearing and his testimony that may have framed the national debate over the H-1B visa.

Ten years ago, during the original dot-com boom, offshore outsourcing was just beginning; upstart India-based firms were winning Y2k remediation contracts and building businesses that would quickly become global outsourcing firms. With the rise of offshore outsourcing also came increasing demand for H-1B visas. Matloff today remains the leading critic of this program. Both presumptive presidential candidates support the H-1B program, and it has much support in Congress. Matloff knows he may be fighting a quixotic battle but carries on nonetheless.

How did H-1B advocacy start for you? First, even in 1998 there were severe problems that were masked by all the hoopla about the dot-com boom. Even in 1998, there were a number of people who just weren't able to get work. These were generally people who were over 40, many well qualified in the classical sense -- years of significant experience. It was clear, even then, that what the industry wanted was cheap labor.

The quest for cheap labor was the industry's own fault. The industry really began to get fixated on people with very specific skill sets. In 1998, Java, for instance, was hot. The industry got into this mind-set where they felt they had to have somebody with Java experience. By doing that, since Java was relatively new at the time, they were basically driving up salaries. They got even more interested in hiring people that were cheap. One of the ways to get cheap labor is to hire young, and if you run out of young people to hire that are American -- meaning U.S. citizens and permanent residents -- you turn to hiring young foreign people. And almost all the H-1Bs are young.

What was the epiphany that drew your attention? 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 H1 visas -- the predecessor of the H-1B program -- who were not really good, but they found ways to get hired. So I had suspicions there. I don't think there was anything that really put me over the edge.

Don't your connections with the immigrant community put pressure on you to favor more relaxed, looser 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 the hit age 35 and 40, they are lot less employable, just like the natives are.

I will assume you have some foreign students in your computer science classes? There is a huge difference between people in bachelor's degree programs and people in graduate programs -- master's and Ph.D. 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 the NSF was pushing Congress to enact the H-1B program.

[The] NSF also said at the time that by limiting salaries, Americans would be dissuaded from pursuing graduate degrees and, of course, that's exactly what happened. So now you see only 50% of the Ph.D.s in the computer science go to Americans.

How do you reconcile your views with your own personal interactions with students from foreign countries completing graduate programs at your university? I don't think there is anything to reconcile for two reasons. Why should I blame them for wanting to do this? It's attractive to them. Our national policy has made it available to them. There is no reason to hold it against them.

The second reason is, I have always been strongly in favor of rolling out the immigration red carpet for people who are the so-called best and the brightest -- although I definitely do not say that anybody who has a Ph.D. is the best and the brightest and I strongly disagree with that notion; nevertheless some of them are. And for the ones who are the best and brightest, I've gone out of my way to help them get jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. I don't see anything to reconcile at all for those two reasons.

But how do you sort it out? How do you determine who is the best and the brightest? A lot of people are not aware of this, but there is already a policy. For temporary visas, there is the visa named O-1 [a visa issued for aliens of extraordinary ability and achievement], and for green cards, you have the three levels [EB1, EB2 and EB1, with EB1 designated for those demonstrating the most talent in a particular area]. There is no magic formula, but I think by and large the current policy is fine. If I had my way, I would limit H-1B to the best and the brightest.

What would the H-1B program look like in your model? It would be a lot smaller, way smaller, and the criteria for qualifying would look similar to the EB1, the way it is now.

The presidential candidates all seem to support the H-1B program. And Congress would have increased the cap last year had it reached an agreement on immigration reform. It seems as if you are fighting a losing battle. How would you define success at this point? And what would constitute success in this environment? There are degrees of success. A glass is half-full point of view would be: "Gee, we've held them off this long [from a cap increase], that's pretty good." It's a success of sort. On the other extreme, you restore H-1B to the original intention of just bringing in the best and the brightest.

But what would be a realistic goal? A realistic goal is part of the Durbin/Grassley [H-1B and L-1 Visa Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act] bill in the Senate. By far, the most important part of the Dubin/Grassley bill is to redefine prevailing wage. Currently, the employers by statute are required to pay prevailing wage, but the definition of prevailing wage is just full of loopholes. The Dubin/Grassley bill would fix that by setting a definition of prevailing wage that really would make it the market wage.

The second most important aspect of the bill is that it would take the current restrictions on H-1B dependent employers [employers that have a significant number of H-1B workers based on certain percentages of their workforce] and make them applicable to all H-1B employers. There are several restrictions on H-1B-dependent employers. The one that would be the most important would be an antilayoff provision. H-1B-dependent companies are not allowed to hire any H-1B workers within 90 days of a layoff, either prior or afterward. That restriction under the Grassley/Durbin bill would apply to all H-1B employers, and that would be something that would be really worth having. Employers would also be required to try to hire Americans first.

How far would any of those restrictions go to mitigating the impact of H-1B workers? If there was a good prevailing-wage law, the majority of H-1Bs would not be there today, so the impact would be giant. They wouldn't be able hire H-1Bs as cheap labor.

You have written that computer science departments must be honest with students regarding career opportunities in the field, so what do you tell students today? I am chair of our undergraduate curriculum committee, and every year, I give a presentation to high school seniors and their parents. I tell them that things are fairly good for new gradates right now, they aren't nearly as good as they were in the late 1990s, but once you are out 10 years or so, then you've got to be nimble. It's much harder to find work in the field after you have been around in the field for 10 years or so. A lot of the parents themselves are engineers. Their parents know what's going on. In many cases, the parents in Silicon Valley are encouraging their kids not to go into the field because they know what's going on. That's all I tell them.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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