It’s been said time and time again: The United States is the global leader in science and technology. However, if we want to retain our position at the head of the pack, we need to rapidly rethink some of our immigration policies. Since the advent of the current tech boom in the mid-1990s, U.S. employers have been begging the federal government to subsidize their business activities by increasing their access to cheap, compliant foreign labor.
You read that correctly. High-tech employers are now trying to cut their labor costs using the very same technique that has become infamous in the agricultural, construction and hospitality industries: massive infusions of foreign guest workers. In fact, the H-2A/B and H-1B temporary employment visas are now ensuring that jobs at both the lower and upper end of the economic spectrum are going to foreign nationals, rather than U.S. citizens.
Using data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, a new Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) study recently calculated that 25 to 30 percent of America’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) labor force is now made up of foreign workers. All Americans should be asking why the number of foreign tech workers in the U.S. is so high, especially when the economy was booming, prior to the temporary downturn associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.
The answer is simple: H-1B workers are primarily concerned with gaining entry to the U.S. job market. Therefore, they are willing to accept lower wages, which makes them more attractive to employers, who are always attempting to reduce labor costs.
If you are a foreign worker, accepting lower wages is simply part of the cost of getting a temporary worker visa, which opens the door to an employment-based green card, which, in turn, grants access to U.S. citizenship. And, from an economic standpoint, U.S. citizenship is the real-world equivalent of the “golden ticket” that got Charlie into the chocolate factory in Roald Dahl’s famous story.
For tech employers, this means massive savings on annual labor costs. However, it also results in depressed wages for all STEM workers, across the board. And, it tends to discourage American STEM graduates from even looking for positions in their chosen field. For example, the study found that students who obtain a degree in finance can expect a better starting wage and about 11 percent higher salary growth over a 10-year period than students who earn a degree in computer-programming. And the Center for Immigration Studies has found that only one-third of all native-born Americans with a STEM degree actually hold a job in their field.
Most U.S. citizens would agree that giving their fellow Americans the first crack at the golden ticket is not only fair but also a good business practice. Foreign guest workers, particularly those at the highest end of the economic spectrum, send massive amounts of cash out of the U.S. economy every year in the form of remittance payments sent to friends and family in their native countries. That money never comes back. American workers, on the other hand, spend most of their wages here in the U.S., which helps drive our economy. That’s another way that large numbers of foreign workers hurt the overall economy.
Furthermore, training, recruiting and hiring American workers for STEM positions ensures that the U.S. has a pool of high-tech specialists that can be readily accessed, even in a time of crisis. At present, the world is facing a pandemic that will be defeated largely by STEM professionals. But, in this instance, importing tech professionals from abroad isn’t an option.
The good news is that the world’s best institutions for training STEM professionals are located in the United States: Johns Hopkins, MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Cal-Tech, to name just a few. And those schools are producing large numbers of STEM graduates. But, if the U.S. wants those graduates to find jobs, it’s time reverse all our flawed immigration policies that disadvantage U.S. citizens. And a very good start would be prohibiting high-tech employers from hiring foreign nationals whenever there are American workers available with the appropriate skill set.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t just about protecting American jobs or wages. In today’s world, having a reliable homegrown STEM workforce is a necessity. Public health, commerce, defense and national security are now dependent on technology to a startling degree. Without a suitable pool of U.S. STEM workers, America can’t remain competitive as a nation.
However, if we make STEM education and STEM employment as American as baseball and apple pie, we are sure to retain our position as the most significant tech power on the face of the planet. But keeping America STEM-friendly means keeping our STEM workforce mostly American. And that’s something we can only accomplish with wise immigration policies aimed at protecting, not undercutting American workers.
Matt O’Brien is director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit group advocating for legal immigration.