The publication of that quote led to embarrassed denials and may not reflect the Florida senator’s views (though Rubio is indisputably not in the Sessions-Grassley camp on H-1Bs). But it’s an opinion one occasionally hears—in private—among advocates for more foreign workers.
Tom Davis, then a Republican congressman from Virginia, once summed up the H-1B visas debate nicely: “This is not a popular bill with the public. It’s popular with the CEOs.… This is a very important issue for the high-tech executives who give the money.”
Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican later bounced from the Senate for voting for a Wall Street bailout that was very important to the executives who give the money, was also refreshingly candid on this issue. “Once it’s clear [the visa bill] is going to get through, everybody signs up so nobody can be in the position of being accused of being against high tech,” he reportedly said. “There were, in fact, a whole lot of folks against it, but because they are tapping the high-tech community for campaign contributions, they don’t want to admit that in public.”
Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, has in fact been pounding the drums in a very public fashion on a few things that IT professionals (I was one a decade ago) frequently say privately. H-1B visa holders frequently don’t have more advanced skills than what is available in the domestic labor market. At least some of the visa craze reflects a reluctance to hire older technicians. And there is scant evidence of a tech labor shortage, with most—if not all—of the studies purporting to show one either originating in or funded by the industry itself.
“The H-1B work visa is fundamentally about cheap, de facto indentured labor,” Matloff has written. “The vast majority of H-1Bs, including those hired from U.S. universities, are ordinary people doing ordinary work, not the best and the brightest.” Their employers exercise strong control over these workers, who find it exceedingly difficult to change jobs or companies.
Matloff is a liberal and, outside of some immigration restrictionists, his warnings on this subject have not gotten much of a hearing on the right. But honest tech proponents often say much the same thing. “I know from my experience as a tech CEO that H-1Bs are cheaper than domestic hires,” wrote Vivek Wadhwa in rhe American, a magazine published by the American Enterprise Institute. “Technically, these workers are supposed to be paid a ‘prevailing wage,’ but this mechanism is riddled with loopholes.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the Democrat who represents Silicon Valley in Congress and a staunch defender of the H-1B program, admitted in 2011 that the federal government’s prevailing wage requirement for H-1B computer systems analysts was $40,000 less than the average wage for the same job in her district. “Small wonder there’s a problem here,” she said after receiving this data from the Department of Labor.
No less a free-market economist than Milton Friedman acknowledged the H-1B “program is a benefit to their employers, enabling them to get workers at a lower wage, and to that extent, it is a subsidy.” But are conservatives willing to extend their critique of corporate welfare to this practice beloved by tech companies?
Sessions has gone so far as to invoke the tech unions concerned about H-1B and L-1 visas in his opposition to the Gang of Eight immigration bill. “Congress should listen to the warning from the engineers’ union,” he said in a statement. “For the most part, those in the H-1B program do not become business owners and job creators and do not become immigrants,” he continued. “Rather, they are temporary workers who take jobs at lower pay until they are sent home.”
“Republicans should seize this issue as a crucial moment in history to stand up for the working people of this county, and to defend them against elite Washington interests,” Sessions told the Daily Caller after a closed-door White House meeting between the president and tech executives. “This is an issue that ought to make natural allies out of the GOP, union workers and even the unions themselves… [it’s] also an important moment for a number of Democrats who were elected on the promise of defending workers: Will they side the economic interests of the workers in their states or will they side with the powerful interests meeting at the White House?”
Sessions went on to cite the “$15-an-hour legal worker who doesn’t want to lose his job to federally subsidized illegal labor.” The senator concluded, “Somehow I doubt Goldman Sachs or La Raza is speaking for these Americans.”
That rhetoric may sound uncomfortably like Samuel Gompers to some conservatives. But Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won votes from millions of rank-and-file union members even as big labor’s bosses mostly opposed them. And if the libertarian populism that has become all the rage among some center-right political thinkers is to ever become a serious political movement, it will have to move beyond the Export-Import Bank to less arcane matters—like unemployed programmers.
Indeed, a tight labor market might be the best—and most free-market—way to stave off growing demands for minimum wage increases and an economically unsustainable “living wage.” But that can only occur if conservatives don’t manufacture an immigration reform consensus that doesn’t really exist.
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