The NBC Nightly News' segment, "Can America Keep Best, Brightest Immigrants?" asks a seemingly-straightforward question: "Many foreigners come here, get educated, and want to stay, but can’t. How can the U.S. take advantage of their potential?" The report takes a look at the H-1B (non-immigrant) visa program, which was created in 1993 to allow skilled workers - particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields - to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis. The "temporary" part of the visa has NBC and the featured personalities in this story concerned. Their thesis is simple: "America's visa restrictions lead to reverse brain drain," depriving the U.S. economy of the job creators it desperately needs.
In the segment, we meet an entrepreneur who started a successful business in India after his U.S. visa expired. Later, we meet other foreign entrepreneurs who fear they will have to take their job-creating skills back home with them when their visas expire. NBC asks a good question: "Why do U.S. immigration officials make it so hard for them to stay?"
Sadly, NBC never answers that question; it never even tries, despite a wealth of readily available information. Why are there restrictions on H-1B visas? The short answer is to protect American workers.
H-1B visas provide cheap labor, not needed labor
The goals of the H-1B and L visa programs have been to bring in foreign workers who complement the U.S. workforce. Instead, loopholes in both programs have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in the country. They are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to U.S. workers.
-Ron Hira, "The H-1B and L-1 Visa programs: Out of Control," Economic Policy Institute, 2010
There is no shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. In fact, RAND studies show a crisis of surplus workers. But don't take RAND's word for it, just ask NBC's expert witness Vivek Wadhwa, who co-authored a study for Duke University that also found no worker shortage. It is a pity that NBC didn't ask Wadhwa why he thinks foreign workers are important to the U.S. economy despite these findings. As Professor Norm Matloff of the University of California at Davis points out in his H-1B/Offshoring E-Newsletter, Wadhwa himself has said, "I was one of the first [CEOs] to use H-1B visas to bring workers to the U.S.A. Why did I do that? Because it was cheaper."
H-1Bs are skilled, but not the "Best and Brightest"
NBC uses the words "Best" and "Brightest" to describe H-1B visa holders in the story, the headline, the Editor's Note, and the online Discussion. Is it true? You be the judge. According the the U.S. Government Accountability Office's 2011 report, a majority of H-1B visa holders fall into the lowest ("Entry Level") of four skill categories; only 6 percent of H-1Bs fall under the highest ("Fully Competent") level. The U.S. actually has an unrestricted "O visa" for aliens "with extraordinary ability or achievement." In 2009, 58,566 O visas were granted to these persons, their spouses, and their assistants.
Fine, you say. So, H-1B holders are cheap and generally don't possess rare skills, but what about their mysterious ability to create jobs? Don't we want jobs? NBC reports that "Wadhwa's research found that between 1995 and 2005, 25 percent of startups in Silicon Valley had at least one immigrant founder. And those startups created nearly a half-million jobs." That sounds like a great discovery. But a closer look reveals that immigrants have virtually identical entrepreneurial rates as native-born Americans, and the "25 percent of startups" argument is a disingenuous one. Which brings us to....
Brain Drain and Ageism
In Fiscal Year 2009, more than 100,000 new H-1Bs were granted despite a loss of 245,600 jobs in the high-tech industry (Hira, Economic Policy Institute). It should be no surprise that, while the U.S. is still producing enough skilled graduates to fill U.S. jobs, many students are switching career paths as they see STEM jobs either go to imported workers or get shipped overseas.
On the flip side, the H-1B program provides employers with a steady stream of younger workers to replace older workers. In the computer field, new graduates make $20,000 - $60,000 less than their older counterparts. Professor Matloff says, "It is perhaps not a coincidence that civil engineers (who compete with fewer H-1B visa holders) have much longer careers than programmers, even though they have similar skill sets."
Again, had NBC asked their expert, Wadhwa might have referenced his own paper, "Silicon Valley’s Dark Secret: It’s All About Age."
NBC's failure to note any of these details is surprising given that they've reported on these issues before. In his e-newsletter response to the NBC segment, Professor Matloff lauds NBC for another story they wrote on the H-1B visa program. In 1998, back before the dot.com bubble burst, NBC produced this story: "Older workers: tired or wired? Age discrimination is a growing issue in high-tech industry."
Age discrimination is still a growing issue, but one that has apparently slipped off of NBC's radar.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, Jun 8th 2017 @ 3:00pm EDT