Thursday, July 10, 2014

Another probably useless plea for more high-skilled immigration

(This post originally appeared in Bloomberg View.)

It’s hard to believe passionately in an issue that almost nobody cares about, and when those that do care usually disagree with you. But life is hard, so here I am: a passionate believer in letting more high-skilled workers immigrate to the U.S.
There’s really no natural constituency for high-skilled immigration. The potential immigrants themselves aren’t in the country yet. High-skilled Americans are afraid that high-skilled immigrants will take their jobs and depress their wages (though the evidence says this isn’t really true). And of course the low-skilled Americans don’t even have the issue on their radar.
The closest thing to a constituency for high-skilled immigration is Silicon Valley, because tech companies naturally want plentiful, cheap high-skilled employees. And Silicon Valley has done an admirable job of lobbying for increasing the number of H-1B visas, even if it lost the fight this time around. The problem is that H-1B holders aren’t actually immigrants -- they’re guest workers. H-1B allows workers to have so-called dual intent -- i.e., they won’t be kicked out of the country if someone overhears them saying they would like to become a U.S. citizen. But H1-B holders are at a large disadvantage with respect to permanent residents with green cards or citizens when it comes to job mobility and negotiating leverage with their employers. The H-1B program isn’t indentured servitude (as its critics allege), but it isn’t immigration either.
What about the political parties? Some people have suggested that the Democratic Party is holding high-skilled immigration policy hostage, demanding a deal on illegal immigration as part of the package. Vox recently suggested the exact opposite -- that Republicans might be willing to cut a deal on high-skilled immigration, but only in exchange for a crackdown on undocumented workers. Either way, don’t expect the parties to push the issue much.
So who does that leave in support of high-skilled immigration? A bunch of random libertarian oddballs and economics bloggers, such as Adam Ozimek and Vivek Wadhwa. Those guys have their hearts is in the right place, but you will pardon me if I say I’m not optimistic about their chances of getting legislation passed. High-skilled immigration seems destined to remain a political football.
With no natural allies, the potential entrepreneurs and inventors who might boost our economy are left out in the cold. Security agencies treat them like criminals. And heedless bureaucracies, seemingly running on autopilot, randomly come up with new ways to keep them out of the country. It’s shameful, but no one is standing up and trying to stop it.
Essentially, I’m fighting for a lost cause here. But ever since I read ``Don Quixote'' during in-school suspension for spitting in a bully’s face in the seventh grade, I’ve been a fan of lost causes, so once more unto the breach.
The U.S. needs high-skilled immigrants. They represent one of the last big juicy pieces of low-hanging fruit out there for the taking. They start lots of companies, which give people jobs. They power most of our highest-value-added industries. They don’t compete with working-class Americans; they employ working-class Americans, and their demand for local goods and services gives income to working-class Americans.
The main arguments against high-skilled immigration are wrong. Brain drain is less important than brain gain -- immigrants to the U.S. end up helping their source countries over the long run. Nor is a skills shortage a necessary condition for bringing in high-skilled immigrants.
Some even see bigotry in the call for high-skilled immigration -- what, are we trying to create some kind of high-IQ utopia here? Why is a high-skilled immigrant any more desirable than a low-skilled immigrant? Well, I support low-skilled immigration too! But low-skilled immigration is easy to get, since the U.S. has high wages for manual labor, relative to most counties. High-skilled immigration, on the other hand, requires more active recruitment. Also, there’s the possibility that low-skilled immigration pushes down the wages of working-class and poor Americans; high-skilled immigration, in contrast, will boost the wages of low-skilled Americans.
In an ideal world, what would we be doing to increase high-skilled immigration? By far the most important thing is to increase the number of green cards -- not H-1Bs -- and to base the new crop of green cards on skills instead of family reunification. The idea of stapling a green card to the diplomas of foreigners who study in the U.S. is a good one, and something like this should be made a reality. Beyond that, we should increase the number of entrepreneurship visas, boost the number of H-1Bs, and reform the H-1B visa to make workers less tethered to specific employers. But green cards are really the key.
By keeping out high-skilled immigrants, the U.S.’s government is like a quarterback running the wrong way and scoring a touchdown against its own team. We need to stop doing that, and we need to stop now.


  1. Hmm. As someone with an MS in Comp. Sci. and some amount of industry experience, the impression is that free immigration of high-tech types would be a disaster for us. In 7 years at MIT, I never met an Indian who wasn't at least one standard deviation above me on the IQ scale. Ditto for Koreans and Iranians (e.g. the Iranian nuclear engineering majors Cheney and Kissinger had trained at MIT in the mid-70s included some seriously smart kids). The joke in the computer industry has always been management complaining they couldn't find engineers and the engineers saying "Hey, pay us as much as you pay your MBAs and there will be zillions of us."

    As a bleeding heart liberal, the only problem I have with free immigration is the question of the morality of brain draining poorer countries, but free immigration would be good for everyone in the US _except_ those of us who would have to complete head to head.

    1. Anonymous4:05 AM

      Fun fact: China only allows immigration of people with degrees.

      Immigration of higher skilled employees is good for a country. it deprives othger countries of their global competetive power and increases that of the USA. would an high skilled indian rather be in india or the USA?sure it might suck for higher skilled people in the USA, but the good thing is they have to compete less against companies in india.

      The most useless thing is immigration of lower-skilled people. in what country has that ever worked out? they are a drain on welfare and contribute barely nothing. They just take the lower-skilled jobs of people who now not only are jobless in a recession, but also in boom time.

    2. In 7 years at MIT, I never met an Indian who wasn't at least one standard deviation above me on the IQ scale. Ditto for Koreans and Iranians

      Do you realize how restrictive the MIT admission process is for foreign students? Only the best of the best of the best are allowed in.

    3. "How restrictive the MIT admissions process is"

      Yes. I'm quite aware of it. But that doesn't change the point that there's an amazingly large number of people out there way smarter than your generic US comp. sci. major whom most of us couldn't compete against were they given a fair shot. China and India have a lot of people, and the tiny tip of the Bell curve has a correspondingly lot of people. The rest of the Boston Latin/Stuyvesant/Bronx Science contingent in my day were folks I could complete with, well, some of them some of the time, anyway. The foreign student community at MIT was (and presumably still is) enormous, and dense of serious brilliant folks. I have heard complaints that Harvard's furriners tend to be kids of rich folks who can be hit up for donations, but that's Harvard. It's a different world. They make the kings, not the wizards.

    4. The most useless thing is immigration of lower-skilled people. in what country has that ever worked out?

      In Canada and the United States from discovery to 1965.

    5. Anonymous1:57 AM

      I've been a software engineer since the 1980's in Silicon Valley and worked at HP and Oracle in very good labs as well as startups. The notion that the Indians and Chinese are way above us is hocus pocus. I can't believe that you have really been around in this industry if you are making that argument. And anyway, in my decades of experience it has become clear that exemplary performance in school doesn't predict a strong creative career.

    6. Totally agree. I am a scientist/engineer engaged in R&D in medical imaging, and I have worked with people at all degree levels (from AA to Ph. D.) from all over. American workers often outperform foreigners in my experience, because of their willingness to take initiative. An example: I was on a service call in Kyoto, with several Japanese engineers, working on a Sunday afternoon in a large research institution with a lot of security keys one had to pass to get in or out. We finished our job, and I thought it was time to go. 'Why are we waiting' I asked. My Japanese colleagues replied that we needed the company field engineer to return to let us out, since only he knew the security codes. 'Well' I said, 'This building is full of other people working today; why not ask one of them to let us out?' 'We don't know them' was the reply. I said I didn't care and was on my way out the door to find a neighbor to free us, when, fortuitously, the FE arrived.

      To the point about job loss and lower salaries. That foreign programmers will work for less is well established in the Valley. Also, I knew older American programmers, excellent guys, who could get no work except occasional consulting. There are plenty of good American engineers out there who need jobs; also, wages for senior professionals have been flat for 30 years, and don't need any more downward pressure.

      DIfferent cultural norms, or what?

  2. Eli has a small suggestion for Noah, go look at the faculty list for universities and colleges, especially the non-r1s. These are filled with immigrants (you can tell from the CVs where their first degrees are listed if you want to be fussy) because having a job offer at a US college was for a long time a free pass to a green card. It is also one of the reasons that salaries at non-r1 places are, to be polite, low.

    This does not say that the US has not profited from immigrants, we have been stealing technology and brains since the Arkwright mills, but to pretend that there are no negative consequences is another thing

  3. agree

    You cannot support the meritocracy and be opposed to affirmative action while also opposing high tech immigration. Limiting labor options, like racial quotas in schools, hurts competitiveness. This is why I'm not strictly a republican but a utilitarian pragmatist that more high tech immigration in the context of a free market is conducive to wealth creation.

    1. Just another MR Commodore6:00 AM

      So I sail across the blogosphere to find you making the exact same comment here as on MR, but under a different name. I guess it's a small world after all.

  4. Anonymous4:09 AM

    The conversation kinda goes like this:

    [OP] "Hey everyone. we should let the most skilled, determined and hardworking inhabitants of other countries become part of our country and add to it, what do you say?"

    [Guy working service job] "No way man, there will be competition for our jobs!"

    [Unemployed racist] "No more immigrants taking welfare!"

    [Everyone else] "I don't understand or care about this issue, and it's 6 PM, time for my reality/variety show of choice"

    So good luck with that. More green cards for the best and brightest around the world is a great idea but it probably won't happen any time soon. To be fair though, if Silicon Valley or other businesses wants more high skilled employees, they should just raise their compensation instead of forming wage cartels, or pay money to train people like what used to happen before business figured "job-specific education" was yet another thing they could offload to the taxpayer in their quest for record profit. That's normally how supply and demand works. I don't blame most folks for not wanting to base a major domestic policy on what the Zuckerbergs of the world think will make them richer.


  5. I never met an Indian who wasn't at least one standard deviation above me on the IQ scale. Ditto for Koreans and Iranians (e.g. the Iranian nuclear engineering majors Cheney and Kissinger had trained at MIT in the mid-70s included some seriously smart kids).Thanks for sharing.

  6. This does not say that the US has not profited from immigrants, we have been stealing technology and brains since the Arkwright mills, but to pretend that there are no negative consequences is another thing.

  7. Great timing, Noah:

    Can you explain why the U.S. needs more high-skilled immigration if the high-skilled workers already in country cannot get jobs? Is it a matter of increasing the labor supply to keep wages low, or is it a matter of raising the value of real estate by increasing demand?

  8. I'm good with immigration, I'm really not good with non-immigrant visas. I hate H1Bs. I'd be willing to give all the H1B people green cards. H1Bs are the worst compromise, bring in high skilled people to keep wages low, but make them leave to appease Xenophobes. They are pmarca's dream, get high skilled low wage tech workers, remove any ability for them to ask for more wages.

    Open borders baby, let everyone in.

    And for the Anonymous xenophobe replying to DJL - I can name one country that thrived on letting low skilled immigrants in, the United States of Fucking America.

    Give me you tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.

    I think the real solution is to kick out the anonymous blog commenters, that's always good for everyone.

  9. I'm all for high skilled immigration, if we get rid of ridiculousness like H1B visas in favor of green cards or the like.

    However, I'm positive it depresses wages in the sectors the immigrants are in, at least in job sectors I'm familiar with. Look at how the easier access of visas has changed the science job market in the US, and look at the difference in salaries for those positions limited to US citizens (primarily for security clearance reasons). Also, anecdotal evidence- all the Americans that were in my physics phd program have left science because it wouldn't provide the lifestyle they wanted (who wants to move all over the country on short term contract positions for less than $40k a year?). The majority of the foreign students, however, have stayed in science because otherwise they'd have to leave and at this point they have roots here. One of the biggest reasons I want an easier path to citizenship for high skilled immigrants is that I know so many who feel trapped by their current situation.

  10. See this is why you need to just let the "crazy" guys you can't specifically answer have our way... note: there's basically nothing marc a. and I disagree on - not a thing. We come at everything with a software solution.

    1. GICYB - Uber for Welfare solves "most" of the immigration problem overnight.

    30M low skilled Americans are all immediately employed doing basically anything they want. At $40 a week basically anybody who wants to be creative can go do it and survive ont he $28o they get paid. Because Fortune 1000 companies - the kind that need more stable workers and there is no labor slack - they will have to compete with GICYB, they will be forced to pay a new wage premium.

    (Later I'll explain why #distributism (disadvantaging Fortune 1000) in the software based economy right now makes sense - but just remember - economic growth is all just bundling and unbundling, bundling and unbundling.)

    So the only remaining low skill jerbs left are by definition the ones nobody wants to do. If you want to reduce LS American hedons, you can raise the minimum job offer to $80 or $120... the point is at $40 a week for Americans, we will need more LS immigrants...

    This forces LS Americans to CHOOSE directly: more fun jobs under GICYB = need more LS immigrants.

    2. You need to start screaming that USG / CIA ought to be bribing a couple of Mexican Senators.

    Ending Fideicomiso, which keeps 5M upper-middle class retiring American families from buying and owning beachfront property and turning Mexico into the New Florida, PASSED the lower house, and stalled out in the upper house, but it was CLOSE:

    (there's a horse on a lion)

    5M families = 10M Americans with 50M+ downstream middle class or better children and grandchildren... who will NOT be happy waiting at border to go see their inheritance.

    Nothing fortifies the Mexican local officials against the drug trade more than tourism, and this is much better than tourism, this is healthcare + tourism (see Florida).

    3. On HS immigration, yes of course we need people who earn above average wages to come here and get their hair cut, and eat out, etc. But we ought to try it first by rewarding those cities that agree to change their land use NIMBY mindsets.

    That doesn't just mean Detroit, altho MSFT would probably take all 50K visas and close down their Indian operations.

    It also means Houston and Austin get it and San Fran, Boston, NYC and Wash DC do not...

    The tech guys will LOVE this leverage, bc it unites the anti-Googlers with the Googlers. against the old guard.

    It brings the South to the table as well.


    Since you are shrugging, these are solid goto policy objectives to scramble the debate.

    Bundle and unbundle, bundle and unbundle.... always.

  11. Anonymous1:37 PM

    It is interesting to compare what you describe in the US to what you see in Canada. Canada has long used a "points system" in an attempt to select highly skilled immigrants and has kept immigration at fairly levels (giving us a high foreign born share -- indeed in a place like Toronto most people were born outside Canada). My impression is that skill-based immigration is viewed as positive in Canada -- it is a convenient way of getting around skill shortages; the immigrant community itself provides political support.

    On wage effects this study by Adeymir and Borjas is interesting -- suggesting wage effects in line with the skill intensity of the migrants


    1. Anonymous4:24 PM

      Canada has actually phased that system out because a significant portion of immigrants who are viewed by the federal government as high skilled are barred from participating in their field by local provincial cartels -- whether doctors, electricians or whatever so Canada ended up with the hilarious situation where tens of thousands of highly skilled immigrants Canada wanted ended up working menial jobs.

  12. Let me note a particular category of high skilled immigration not specifically mentioned here that Dean Baker has relentlessly pounded on about that has the potential for especially stimulating the US economy and society, if not the incomes of those in that sector currently here. This is physicians. One obvious way to help bring down the outrageously high medical care costs in the US is to increase immigration of medical personnel. But this was never mentioned by any politician of either main party during the debate over Obamacare, and indeed immigration restrictions in this area were actually tightened when Clinton was president, with bipartisan support. But this is an area where loosened immigration restrictions have tremendous potential for improving US economy and society.

    BTW, I say this as the father of an MD.

    Barkley Rosser

  13. Right on. Only don't kid yourself about brain gain outweighing brain drain. More to the point, us keeping them out does not keep them home.

  14. Anonymous3:10 AM

    Just to be clear, this using the economist's definition of high skill = high pay, right? Not the regular people definition of high skill = good at your job, but with the understanding that some jobs pay ridiculously more or less than than they should. Vincent Van Gogh would be a "low skill immigrant" for example.