In connection with President Barack Obama's push for reform of immigration laws, two recent articles deserve attention. The first describes Operation Reboot, a $2.5 million, federally funded program to train middle-aged, out-of-work computer professionals for jobs as high school computer teachers. The second recounts the hiring of Yuying Lu, a recent alumna of California State University, Long Beach, for a computer job with a California company on an H-1B visa, the temporary work permit ostensibly intended to relieve shortages of technical personnel. A Chinese national who arrived in the United States in 2007, Lu earned a master's degree in a subject called educational technology.

"So, in essence one branch of the federal government is funding unemployed ITers to 'retrain' for something well beneath their qualifications, while another federal agency is approving work permits for foreign students [for jobs] that unemployed Americans could easily do," writes the man to whom I owe my knowledge of this piquant contrast, computer science professor Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis. He continues, "Of course, the fact that the Georgia Tech [Georgia Institute of Technology] program is funded by the NSF [National Science Foundation], which has been a promoter of H-1B, makes it all the more ironic."

Based on his analysis of the Long Beach curriculum, Matloff judges the "computer content" of Lu's degree to be "quite shallow. ... It ought to be obvious that the 'former' IT professionals in the Georgia Tech program, or their counterparts in the southern California area, could easily be doing that job that Lu was hired for." Matloff's criticism, let me hasten to note, is of national policies and not of Lu, who has only taken advantage of opportunities legally available to her. "The H-1B does not require employers to give hiring priority to Americans," Matloff continues. Although "the spirit of the program is to fill shortages, ... I don't think there is a shortage here."

(Courtesy of Norman Matloff)
Norm Matloff

Nor, adds Matloff in a recent interview with Science Careers, does any discernible shortage of scientists exist on American university campuses, where some of the scientists working as postdocs were admitted to the United States on H-1Bs. Although they, therefore, do no affect all foreign postdocs, the provisions of the H-1B nonetheless permit abuses. As in industry, the employer holds the visas, and the workers are not free to seek other positions. Although many differences distinguish IT employees from postdoc researchers, Matloff sees an overriding similarity. "It's exactly the same issue," he says. "It boils down to cheap, compliant labor."

Sharp eye, straight talk

This combination of straight talk and expert knowledge is probably familiar to readers who see the e-mail newsletter on immigration and employment that Matloff sends out at irregular intervals, from which I quoted above. His newsletter essays often present detailed analyses of the statistical claims or methodological bases of statements, often published in (purportedly) scientific reports and articles. Also familiar to those readers will be his views on the H-1B, about which he has made himself something of a national expert, a determined gadfly, and an interview subject for media outlets including CNN, NPR

, PBS, and others. His interest grew out of the experiences of his computer students. (To receive the newsletter, e-mail a request to

Critics of immigration policies often find themselves accused of hostility to immigrants, a charge that fits Matloff poorly. The self-described offspring of "one-and-a-half immigrants" -- his American-born mother grew up in an immigrant community -- he is married to a U.S. citizen who is originally from China. A largely self-taught speaker of Mandarin and Cantonese, Matloff is something of a polymath. With a Ph.D. in mathematics and as a former professor of statistics at the university where he now holds a full professorship in computer science, he is one of very few technology experts to have contributed a long, invited scholarly article to a law journal published by a leading law school. His "On the Need for Reform of the H-1B Nonimmigrant Work Visa in Computer-Related Occupations", published in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, is considered required reading by skeptics of the tech industry's claims of worker shortages. His fans are drawn heavily from scientifically and technically trained people dissatisfied with existing job opportunities, especially IT professionals unable to find work in their desired field.

What bothers Matloff is not immigration or national origin, but waste, unfairness, and mendacity -- all major elements, he believes, of today's technical and scientific labor markets. He denies the significance of shortages or educational standards or any of the other supposed problems cited by "extremely slick" H-1B proponents, and points out ways that visas save employers money. "Type I," he says, "is where an H-1B of the same qualifications as an American gets paid less than an American. ... That's not illegal [because] there are so many loopholes [in the law]. Type II is hiring the younger H-1B instead of the older American. That's really the same thing [because in general], younger people are cheaper in salary; they're cheaper in benefits. That's really what it boils down to."

In academe, the cost-saving method is even more straightforward. Postdocs receive what universities term training wages rather than faculty-worthy salaries, and large numbers admitted on H-1Bs (and other visas) make possible the depressed pay scale.

In his law review article, Matloff documents some of the effects of these techniques, including what he calls the "striking" attrition rate among computer science graduates, many fewer of whom, he writes, are working in their degree field 15 or 20 years after graduation than are people in other technical specialties. At a point when they are only in their early 40s, less than one-fifth of computer science graduates are still working in the field -- in contrast, for example, to almost 60% of civil engineering graduates still working as civil engineers. Such a situation, Matloff writes, quoting a National Research Council report, "is consistent with actions taken by employers motivated by the reduction of labor costs. For example, an employer that terminated more experienced (hence older), higher-salaried workers and hired less experienced (hence younger), lower paid workers would not necessarily be violating the statutes prohibiting age discrimination. ... It was a waste of education and experience."


For these and other reasons, many of them discussed previously in this space, the H-1B needs to be reformed. Matloff's law-journal article proposes several changes, including requiring employers wanting to hire H-1Bs to attest that they have not "laid off Americans in the same ... job category within the past 6 months ... and will not lay off Americans in the same ... job category within the next 6 months." Furthermore, "the wage paid ... must be at least equal to the median national wage for the given job category, according to the government ... data." The wage, in other words, must not be lower than what a person of similar skills and qualification would receive on the open job market.

All potential H-1B hiring, furthermore, would have to be done through "a public, Web-based process" with a clear and declared preference required for Americans who have the minimum qualifications to become "reasonably productive in the use of that skill within a month, via on-the-job learning." Americans could not be rejected as "overqualified."

Short of Congress enacting his suggestions in full, he favors passage of the Durbin-Grassley Bill, though with the proviso that only "certain parts are good," such as the expansion of rules against layoffs by employers who hire H-1Bs. The best part of Durbin-Grassley, Matloff says, would "clean up the definition of prevailing wage," eliminating loopholes that permit "the legal prevailing wage [to be] well short of the market rate."

"Many supporters of reform ... have the wrong idea that the employers that are underpaying the H-1Bs must be breaking the law," he continues. This view plays "right into the hands of industry, because industry loves to hear these news stories that say, 'People must be breaking the law. You need better enforcement.' But they're not breaking the law" because of the many abuses permitted by loopholes.

The universal bottom line

The desire for cheap, compliant labor is hardly limited to American tech companies or universities, Matloff notes. Last month, a trip to China that included family visits and meetings with professional colleagues provided a number of chances to discuss employment issues. Thanks to Chinese government policies in recent years, Matloff says, "Suddenly, there are a lot of college graduates. This used to be your ticket to the elite. Now they're not getting jobs. There's a surplus of people." A relative who is an engineer with a "very nice job" and a "gorgeous condo" in a provincial city, Matloff says, commented on the current "terrible" job market for new college graduates. "My wife said that of course it must be good for engineers," Matloff reports, "and he was just puzzled that we would just say that."

Lunch with a faculty member at a prestigious Chinese university produced another surprise. "I was saying to our host [that] I think the Chinese system is better because [in China graduate] students are paid by the university; they're not paid from grants" as in the United States. "Paying from grants is kind of a corrupting influence. And he said, no, he really prefers the American way. ... He's not paying his students," so he can't determine how long they stay. When the university declares their research finished, he complained, the students leave. "You see," Matloff concludes, "it goes back to compliant labor." If, as President Obama hopes, the nation does undertake a serious overhaul of immigration law, the H-1B is high on the list of problems that need attention.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.