by Gary Beach

H-1B Visa Controversy Obscures Bigger Issues

Nov 21, 20145 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Skills

U.S. immigration policy took center stage last night when President Obama outlined his plans to use executive authority to address the controversy. The tech industry is concerned with how Obama's plans will affect H-1B visas. However, former publisher Gary Beach says we are focusing on the wrong areas.

visa rubber stamp

Editor’s Note: President Obama’s executive order on immigration announced last night included several implications for H-1B visas. Commentator Gary J. Beach, former publisher of and CIO magazine and author of “The U.S. Technology Skills Gap,” shares his opinions on why the H-1B visa debate is a scapegoat for a much broader challenge facing the United States.

Seven years ago I traveled to the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan to speak at a gathering of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers. Back then, as now, I looked at the H-1B visa as a Band-Aid solution to an issue that needs a tourniquet.

One of my slides that evening called for disbanding the H-1B visa. My rationale, which I thought I explained in my presentation but clearly had not, was to abolish the H-1B annual visa cap and allow an unlimited number of foreign nationals work in America without worry of deportation.

As I finished my talk, I invited the audience to join me in a conversation about my comments. Immediately one distinguished professor, clearly of Indian descent, approached the microphone and said, “Mr. Beach, if your country followed the H-1B advice you have shared with us 50 percent of the faculty of the school of engineering would have to leave. America would be cutting its nose to spite its face.”

[Related: IT Skills Gap Is Really an Education Gap ]

Before I could try to explain that he misunderstood my remarks, he and nearly 60 other people walked out of the auditorium.

Flash Forward to Immigration Reform

I thought of that evening when I read press reports of President Obama’s executive order on immigration reform. While Obama’s comments last night only briefly alluded to the controversial H-1B visa program making it, the President has said recently that his plans call for making it, “more efficient to encourage more folks to stay here.”

Sounds benign. Almost like inviting guests to your home to stay the weekend. Or six years.

Efficiency, however, isn’t the biggest problem with the H-1B visa program. Far from it. While politicians will continue to frame the H-1B visa issue as a jobs-creation initiative, for a nation that employs 155 million people, the 85,000 H-1B visas represent exactly .0004 percent of America’s workforce. That’s not even a drop in the workforce bucket.

No, the biggest problem with the H-1B visa program is that it is a high-profile scapegoat issue that deflects national attention away from a much thornier structural challenge confronting America: the state of K-16 public education in the United States.

[Related: Is the Technology Skills Gap Fact or Fiction? ]

Read the following paragraph and try to determine when it was written:

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur — others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”

That was the opening paragraph of a 1983 U.S. Department of Education report entitled “A Nation at Risk.”  Decades later, Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, commenting on the abysmal scores of American students in global math and science assessment tests, said , “we can quibble or we can face the brutal truth: we are being out-educated.” The headline to a New York Times editorial board editorial was equally brutal when it said, “The United States, Falling Behind.”

Welcome to the Global Economy

For 214 years America’s economy got along fine, thank you, before the first 794 H-1B visas were granted in 1990. Prior to 1990, America’s business leaders seemed content with the quality of the American tech worker. However by the mid-1990s, with massive Y2K software remediation projects underway, the H-1B visa cap rose to more than 100,000 and management liked what it saw: talented, hard-working foreign technology workers who were adding value to their companies. And if the wage requirements of H1B workers were less, well that was just icing on the workforce cake. Welcome to the global economy.

There was no capitalistic cabal among CEOs in the mid-1990s that said, “Hey, we are paying U.S. technology workers too much money, let’s shift gears and hire more of these less expensive H-1B visa workers.” No. More H-1B workers entered the U.S. during this period because American business leaders respected their smarts. Moreover — and this is important — they were just starting to realize the U.S. public education system was failing to meet their employment needs.

Paraphrasing that University of Michigan professor, continuing to debate H1B quotas and caps is like “cutting your knows, H-1B visa holders, to spite our face.”

It’s time to abolish the H-1B program and focus on an issue — structural K-16 education reform — that will impact the future lives of tens of millions of U.S. citizens.

Gary J. Beach is former publisher of CIO. He is the author of “The U.S. Technology Skills Gap.” Connect him via email or he can be reached on Twitter.