TOPICS > Politics

Could More Highly Skilled Guest Workers Help Spark Tech-Driven Economy?

May 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
NewsHour continues its examination of different aspects of debate on immigration reform. Ray Suarez gets two views on H-1B visas -- how the program for highly skilled foreign workers is structured and how it may change -- with Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford University and Ron Hira of Rochester Institute of Technology.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: On Capitol Hill today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a comprehensive immigration proposal will be debated in June. And House Republicans said they won’t vote on the Senate version, but will pull together their own legislation instead.

We continue our conversations about the issue in our series “Inside Immigration Reform.”

Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: Tonight’s focus: the number of highly skilled foreign workers allowed to enter the U.S.

We examine how the visa program known as “H-1B” is structured now and the proposed changes with Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School and author of the book “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent,” and Ron Hira, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Rochester Institute Of Technology.

And, Professor Hira, the United States admits about a million immigrants a year. Is it a relatively small share of that million that we’re talking about with the H-1B visas?

RON HIRA, Rochester Institute of Technology: Well, actually, we admit about a million permanent residents each year, and about 140,000 or so are high-skilled permanent residents. That’s Green Cards.

The H-1B is actually a guest-worker program, and in there, in the guest-worker program, we admit about 115,000 a year. There’s a cap of 85,000. So, these are actually two separate numbers and separate programs. One is a guest-worker program. One is a Green Card program.

RAY SUAREZ: Vivek Wadhwa, why do companies need these workers? Are Americans preparing to do these jobs in sufficient numbers?

VIVEK WADHWA, Stanford University: Well, companies need these skills that these foreign workers provide.

Right now, technology is driving our economy. We’re solving major problems using technology. We’re advancing U.S. competitiveness using technology. The technology industry needs all the bright people it can get that can help it build these new technologies and improve our economy.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any burden on the companies, Vivek Wadhwa, to demonstrate that they first tried to locate Americans to do these jobs?

VIVEK WADHWA: The anti-immigrant groups and people like Professor Hira have been haranguing companies for hiring foreign workers, as if hiring foreign workers is evil. So they’re on the defensive.

And the new bills raise the barriers, so then they require a lot of extra documentation. They have to prove that they’re not taking the jobs of American workers away. And it’s really leading to a lot of negativity about hiring foreigners, as, again, American companies are trying to compete. They’re trying to make America a better place. They’re trying to make — create more jobs for Americans.

And we’re holding them back because of our flawed immigration policies.

RAY SUAREZ: Ron Hira, how do you respond to that accusation from Vivek Wadhwa?

RON HIRA: Well, I think the facts are pretty clear that, in fact, American — these companies don’t have to look for Americans workers first.

They have — actually, in the bill, the way it’s written right now, they would have to collect resumes, but they don’t actually have to hire Americans, and they could displace Americans. So they can clearly bypass American workers. And there’s an incentive for them to do so.

Even though the bill does raise the wage floors for H-1Bs a little bit, they’re still below-market wages. They’re still cheaper. So there’s a real incentive to bring in these guest workers, because they can be paid lower, below-market wages, less than American workers. Plus, they’re tied to the employer. The employer controls the visa program.

RAY SUAREZ: So, looking back over the history of this program, Professor, what effect have those H-1B workers had on the tech job market in the United States, in your view?

RON HIRA: Well, I think it’s had a significantly negative effect overall. I think there are some really highly talented workers who come in on H-1 visas, a really good part of it. And many of the companies do sponsor them for permanent residence.

But there’s a large, increasing share of employers who really are using it for cheaper labor. And what that does is it has a negative effect in terms of undercutting American wages and job opportunities for incumbent workers. It also discourages American students from studying in these fields.

The typical H-1B worker who really has ordinary skills is working in a back office area in I.T., and oftentimes they’re taking these jobs that Americans are already doing, so they’re actually displacing American workers in many cases.

RAY SUAREZ: Vivek Wadhwa, is that not the case? Aren’t American workers who do these kinds of jobs disadvantaged by the entry of people from the places in the world where that kind of work just costs less?

VIVEK WADHWA: Ray, I live in Silicon Valley.

If you talk to any executive in Silicon Valley, you talk to any company, they will tell you they are starved for talent, they can’t find enough workers who can help them build competitive technologies. There is a dire shortage of skills over here.

Now, yes, there are some unemployed workers in parts of America who have the wrong skills. Sadly, that’s a big problem. And these are the people who Professor Hira is talking about. But, in the tech world, we need more innovators. We need more entrepreneurs.

We need more people who can solve global problems. And companies are desperately looking for them. Are they cheaper to bring — is it cheaper to bring in foreign labor? I don’t know about that. If you look — you know, look at Facebook, Google. These companies don’t care about the cost of labor. They care about the quality of labor.

They’re looking for people who can build world-changing technologies and help them become competitive. So what you hear on that side and what you hear in Silicon Valley is completely different. It’s like a different universe talking to us here in the Valley. We’re starved for talent here. That’s as simple as it is.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Vivek Wadhwa, you have been advocating for a different regime here. Does the Senate proposal address some of your misgivings about H-1B as it has existed?

VIVEK WADHWA: It’s a highly imperfect bill, but it’s better than nothing and I support it, yes.

So, the answer is, yes, it does. It does create more visas. It does allow the brilliant students that come here to study to stay. It does go a long way in fixing the problem, so — and we need it badly.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Ron Hira, same question. Does the new Senate proposal address some of the misgivings you have had about H-1B over the years? RON HIRA: It did more, until the final part of the markup, where Sen. Hatch really and the technology industry really used its political muscle and campaign money to really change the bill significantly.

I think there are some safeguards in the bill, but there’s a really large increase of H-1Bs, and I think the reality is it doesn’t fix the fundamental flaws, which is that H-1B guest workers can be paid below-market wages, so the wage floors are still too low, and that companies can bypass American workers and even displace American workers with guest workers.

RAY SUAREZ: So, quickly, how would you do that? What would do you to change it?

RON HIRA: Well, I think there’s two really pretty easy fixes, straightforward fixes.

One is, you raise the wage floor to at least the average wage. These are the best and brightest, as Mr. Wadhwa calls them. They should at least be paid average American wages. So, you raise the wage floor to that average level. And then the second thing you do is you require them to actually recruit, and if they find qualified American workers, that they actually hire American workers.

And, secondly, you don’t displace American workers. And look for American workers first, give them a legitimate shot, and then you turn to the H-1B guest workers.

RAY SUAREZ: And final suggested fix from Vivek Wadhwa?

VIVEK WADHWA: These are not like McDonald’s workers, where one worker is equal to another.

When you’re talking about talent, the person who can build an iPhone or build a world-changing app is completely different than the people that Ron here is describing. We’re talking about premier talent. I don’t know why he says the average people. I was one of the people who came here on a temporary visa and I ended up creating one company that hired 1,000 workers and made America more competitive, another one that hired 250.

These people are like me. They come here to work hard and innovate and make this country what it is. So, I don’t know why he harangue our companies. Our companies aren’t evil. Our senators aren’t evil. Our companies are trying to just survive in the global competitive landscape and create more jobs for Americans.

So, there’s no evil conspiracy. We have to get beyond this negativity. We have got to make the pie bigger for everyone, so that we can create more jobs and fix this economy. That’s what these technology companies in Silicon Valley are doing. And that’s what we have to focus on right now, not the negativity.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, we will continue this debate.

Vivek Wadhwa, Ron Hira, thank you both.

RON HIRA: Thank you.

VIVEK WADHWA: Thank you.