The high-skill provisions in the immigration reform bill that emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee on 21 May constitutes "a transfer of wealth and income from American workers to corporations," scientific labor force expert Ron Hira writes. "American tech workers have no significant representation in politics and the politicians are looking out for the loudest and richest voices," he tells Science Careers by e-mail. Erica Werner of the Associated Press terms the outcome of the committee markup as a "bonanza for the industry: unlimited green cards for foreigners with certain advanced U.S. degrees and a huge increase in visas for highly skilled foreign workers." And in a Washington Post interview, Senator Bernie Sanders (I–VT) calls the bill, "a massive effort to attract cheap labor."

"[T]hanks to the intervention of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the industry succeeded in greatly curtailing controls sought by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., aimed at protecting U.S. workers," Werner writes, in an astute analysis of the politics of the committee’s decisions. For example, with the new provisions, "[t]he unemployment rate would no longer be a factor in how high the H-1B visa cap could go up, as long as it was not 4.5 percent or above for the highly skilled professions in question. Only those companies most heavily dependent on H-1B visas would have to offer jobs to qualified U.S. citizens first, although the definition of an H-1B-dependent company was tweaked to make it slightly narrower. And the provision barring displacement of U.S. workers within 90 days was also limited in much the way Hatch sought," Werner adds. 

Why was industry so successful in winning what it wanted? Minimally organized science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workers had "little clout compared with companies like Microsoft and Facebook," which have supported massive lobbying efforts, and labor unions have "been largely quiet on high-tech issues while focusing on other priorities including a pathway to citizenship and a separate visa program allowing lower-skilled workers into the U.S.," Werner notes. Though labor leaders expressed opposition to weakening protections of American workers, this "never was seen as a serious concern by senators or aides involved," she writes. "They were confident that labor would not pull its support for a bill offering citizenship to millions over a provision affecting relatively few union workers." Also crucial in Hatch’s victory over Durbin was the former's strategic position as a powerful Republican supporting an effort that is a major Democratic priority. 

In an interview with The Post that was published on Saturday, Senator Sanders (VT), one of two independent Senators, characterizes the drive to increase the numbers of both high- and low-skilled workers on temporary visas as "a process pushed by large corporations which results in more unemployment and lower wages for American workers," and which is taking place "under the guise of immigrant [sic] reform."

"I am aware that there may well be certain high-skilled jobs in specific areas in high skilled technical industries that American companies are finding it hard to fill," Sanders says. But "I find it hard to understand that, when nine million people in this country have degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, only about three million have jobs in these areas."

"Furthermore," he continues, "as someone who was led to believe that what economics was about was supply and demand, if you need workers in a certain area, you need to raise wages. I have a hard time understanding the notion that there’s a severe need for more workers from abroad when wages for these jobs rose only 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2011. You see stagnant wages for high skilled workers, when these companies tell you that they desperately need high skilled workers. Why not raise wages to attract those workers?"

In fact, as Science Careers reported on 24 May , the wages of chemistry postdocs not only haven’t risen in the past 5 years; in real terms—accounting for inflation—chemistry postdoc wages have fallen 5%, according to an American Chemical Society survey.

Other senators have also expressed skepticism about industry claims, including Chuck Grassley (R–IA) and Jeff Sessions (R–AL). Whether these doubts can lead to changes in some of the bill's more damaging provisions remains to be seen—but Werner’s description of the brutal and well-financed politics of this issue, available here, makes significant improvement seem unlikely.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300114