Norman Matloff

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.

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.

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.

How do you reconcile your views with your own personal interactions with foreign students 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 for the ones who are, I've gone out of my way to help them get jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

But how do you sort it out? How do you determine who are 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 [for aliens of extraordinary ability and achievement], and for green cards you have the three levels [with EB-1 designated for those demonstrating the most talent in a particular area].

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 EB-1.

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? 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 a 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 Act [the U.S. Senate's H-1B and L-1 Visa Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)]. By far the most important part of the bill is to redefine prevailing wage. Currently, the employers by statute are required to pay prevailing wage, but the definition of prevailing wage is 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 it would take the current restrictions on H-1B-dependent employers [those that have a significant number of H-1B workers on staff] 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 anti-layoff 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. 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. 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 graduates right now, [though] 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 after you have been in the field for 10 years or so. A lot of the parents themselves are engineers. 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.

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