Is the High-Skilled Immigrant Shortage a Myth?

Brian Fung
National Journal

Mark Zuckerberg's new political action committee,,  may have gotten off to a shaky start, but it has recovered quickly. The new advocacy group—not to be confused with Facebook's own PAC—launched a clean-looking website yesterday, along with a Twitter feed. Its first order of business? Weigh in on the immigration debate in Congress.

If you've been following the immigration proposals coming from Silicon Valley, the PAC's line on the issue should sound familiar: There aren't enough American-born workers to meet the needs of tech companies starved for computing talent. So Washington needs to increase the number of H1-B work visas for high-skilled, foreign-born immigrants.

Yet according to one school of thought, both the premise of the argument and the prescription for fixing it are deeply flawed. In fact, these critics say, the dearth of science, technology, engineering, and math workers is largely imagined. And that means that lifting the cap on H1-Bs could hurt rather than help the U.S. economy.

Labor organizations are among the most loudest voices in this camp.

"The H-1B program has been used as a tool to displace U.S. workers, pass over recent graduates, and pay foreign workers incredibly low wages," Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, a legislative counsel for the AFL-CIO, wrote in an e-mail.

If you use visa demand as a kind of proxy for labor demand, it's not hard to grasp how businesses view the problem. There just aren't enough visas to hire all the foreign workers employers want. But some labor economists see nothing particularly special about foreign workers, aside from their cost, that should recommend them more highly compared to their American counterparts.

"The positions these workers fill are entry-level positions," said Daniel Costa, an immigration lawyer at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "They're cogs in a machine."

The implication is that even if the H1-B visa holders were geniuses -- and they may not be, judging by their educational achievements, patent applications, or other merit-based measurements -- businesses aren't putting their potential to effective use. What's more, most of the supposed shortage of STEM workers has been in the computing industry -- a very specific, if growing, sector. Meanwhile, other scientific fields have the opposite problem: There aren't enough jobs for well-qualified applicants.

Costa admits that even if it were native graduates who were filling the entry-level computing positions rather than foreigners, the Americans wouldn't be much more likely to come up with the next Apple or Google. But, he said, the ultimate effect of that trend is to keep STEM wages from rising. And over the long term, that should be troubling for native and foreign-born workers alike.