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Silicon Valley's Immigration Agenda is Hurting Middle Class IT Workers

Posted on 14-Jul-2013. Updated on 05-Sep-2013.
Topics: Effects of Immigration on American Workers  Immigration Reform Lobby  

When the Senate passed its new immigration reform bill last week, Mark Zuckerberg took to his Facebook page to celebrate. "A lot of work remains before reform becomes law but today's vote shows that politicians from across the spectrum can come together to vote for reform that will move our economy forward and honor our history as a nation of immigrants," he wrote. Zuckerberg included a link to FWD.us, the political action committee he created to help push immigration reform, which exhorted readers to "join the tech community in passing immigration reform."

As it turns out, the tech community is anything but united on this issue. And the push for new reforms has highlighted the divide between Silicon Valley elite who want access to talent and middle class American IT workers who feel threatened by foreign competition.

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The controversy centers on the push by FWD.us and major tech firms for legislation that would expand the number of H-1B visas available. Created in 1990, the H-1B program allows US companies to hire people from other countries to work in America temporarily, particularly if the workers are "highly skilled" in subjects like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The program also allows workers to pursue a green card for permanent residence.

The current immigration reform bill, which has passed the Senate and moved to the House, would expand the annual cap on H-1B visas from 85,000 all the way up to 180,000.

Along with paying these foreign workers less, says Berry, tech companies believe they can get more out of them. "If a company is holding the reins to the process of getting a green card, and they ask them to come in on the weekends, what do you think they’re going to say? These tech companies want people who will work 80 hours a week without complaining. It’s basically a form of indentured servitude."

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The hard data available on worker pay is conflicting, as are studies that examine whether there is a shortage of American-born STEM workers. A study from The Brookings Institute found that H-1B visa holders working in the tech industry earned an average of 26 percent more than their American counterparts.

A separate study from a group of university professors writing for the Economic Policy Institute reached very different conclusions. It stated that H-1B workers may be filing as many as half of all new IT jobs in the US each year and that only one of every two American STEM graduates will be hired into an available position. The current immigration policies, the study concludes, will discourage US students from going into the STEM field, especially IT. And wages, says the paper, have stagnated over the last 14 years, in large part due to the influx of foreign labor.

How can both of these things be true at the same time? The answer reflects a larger trend in the American labor market: an increasing gap between the top earners and everyone else. In Silicon Valley, elite programmers are in high demand, fought over by employers who pay six- and seven-figure salaries on top of generous stock grants. It's understandable that these companies would spend money lobbying Washington for more access to premier talent.

Sources:

[1] "Is Silicon Valley's immigration agenda gutting the tech industry's middle class?", Ben Popper, The Verge, 3-July-2013

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