Rigorous scholarship is rare in congressional debates, especially debates about highly charged issues like immigration. But, lately, scholars who study the scientific workforce seem to have found an unlikely advocate in Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican senator from Alabama who, during a speech on the Senate floor on 14 May, was seen waving a research article by Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University.
Conventional wisdom on where the two major parties stand usually places Democrats in the corner of working people. But it was Sessions who took to the media in recent weeks, and also to the floor of the Senate, to denounce an industry-led push to increase the quota of H-1B visas, which allow “guest workers” in specialized occupations to work in the United States temporarily. In mid May, Sessions’ office organized a conference call that featured Salzman and three other prominent scholars—Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at Harvard Law School; and Norman Matloff, a computer scientist at the University of California, Davis, who is also a self-taught expert on high-skill immigration—arguing that higher H-1B quotas would lead to more offshoring and discrimination against older workers, lower wages, and, consequently, fewer U.S. students choosing science.
And in a floor speech citing Salzman’s work—apparently wielding a copy of a recent research article—Sessions noted that wages in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are already flat, despite industry executives’ claims of worker shortages. “I’m a little dubious about some of these big-business types claiming they can’t get enough people,” Sessions said, striking a populist note. “So ... Chamber of Commerce, you believe in the free market. Why are wages down if we have a shortage of workers? Why aren’t wages going up?”
It isn't entirely clear what sparked Sessions’ interest in STEM-workforce scholarship, but a possible explanation is that he never was a fan of a bipartisan Senate immigration bill that includes an industry-favored measure to more than double that H-1B visa cap, and the scholarship could help defeat it. “A vote for the Reid-Schumer immigration bill is a vote to lower the wages of American workers,” Sessions said in his floor speech.
Sessions’ invocation of STEM-workforce scholarship may also involve some long-range political positioning aimed at widening his party’s base of support. In a recent interview with The Daily Caller, a conservative online news outlet, Sessions argued for an approach to immigration issues that embraces controlled, legal immigration—and thus could appeal to Hispanics and other minorities—but opposes expansion of the guest-worker program. “We need to say an excess of immigration is pulling down wages for you and your children, and we need to emphasize that we support people of all racial and ethnic groups,” he told The Daily Caller. “I do think it is legitimate to say we oppose doubling the guest-worker program, which hurts recent immigrants as well as the native-born.”
This is not the first time that a lawmaker has argued for policies advocated by STEM-workforce experts, and it may not be the first time that those experts have been mentioned by name on the Senate floor. But it’s hard to remember a lawmaker who seemed quite so up on STEM labor-market scholarship. "Give him credit for considering the evidence and being willing to put it forth in the face of what is a large, well-funded industry [effort] to push a different kind of story,” Salzman tells Science Careers in an interview.