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Dr. Norman Matloff

The T Visa

8/10/99

Recall the Lofgren proposal, announced last week, which would create a new visa type, called T, in addition to the H-1B. Under the proposal, any foreign national with a Bachelor's degree or higher in the CS, engineering or some of the sciences, who is hired for at least a $60,000 salary would be eligible for the T visa, good for 5 years.

Though a number of programmers and engineers on this e-mail list have sent me e-mail expressing alarm over this proposal, I predicted last week that the Lofgren proposal would get a lot of support in Congress, even from those who are skeptical about the H-1B program. I've seen some indirect evidence confirming that prediction, and also today's San Jose Mercury News has an editorial supporting the Lofgren proposal.

I believe that future historians of the role of immigration in labor issues will write that opponents of the H-1B program---e.g. IEEE-USA, FAIR, the AFL-CIO, etc.---were caught unawares, victims of an "end run," in the form of the Lofgren proposal. Already I am hearing from programmers and engineers who are contacting their congresspeople, asking them not to vote for an H-1B increase---and not realizing that this implicitly gives their congresspeople "permission" to vote for the Lofgren proposal. As I explained last week and will elaborate on below, the Lofgren proposal is tantamount to approving an infinite increase in the H-1B quota, and the opponents of H-1B won't even realize this is happening.

The H-1B opponents won't realize how attractive the Lofgren proposal will look even to congresspeople who sympathize with them. The proposal will be presented to Congress with the pitch, "Here is a way to solve the problem of H-1B fraud," referring to the hearing held earlier this year by Rep. Lamar Smith concerning H-1B fraud in India and other countries. (Today's Mercury editorial uses this rationale too.) Of course, this argument is thoroughly fallacious, because the T visa would be IN ADDITION TO the H-1B, not a REPLACEMENT FOR the H-1B, so it would not reduce H-1B fraud at all, but many congresspeople won't see this. (Some won't *want* to see it; others will genuinely misunderstand.) 

Recall that after the hearing on fraud, I predicted that this news, though on the surface appearing to be good news for opponents of the H-1B program, would actually be exploited by the industry lobbyists. That is what is now occurring; instead of the data on fraud being used to REDUCE the number of foreign nationals being brought in to work as programmers and engineers, Lofgren is actually using the fraud issue to INCREASE those numbers.

Many congresspeople will also believe Lofgren's claim that those using her T visa will be "geniuses" (she actually uses this word), because of her $60K salary provision. That is fallacious too, of course; "geniuses" in this field make a lot more than $60K. Moreover, I am fairly certain that during negotiations on this legislation, Lofgren's $60K provision will be changed to "$60K OR a Master's degree"; the industry lobbyists would point out that there is a large interregional variation on salaries, so a "one size fits all" threshhold such as $60K would not make sense in all regions of the U.S.

So, the provision in the end would be "$60K OR a Master's degree." This, coupled with the fact that the T visa would have no quota limitation, would have major, maajor implications. As I said earlier, this would be very similar in effect to removing the quota limitation for the H-1B program, for the following reasons:

 Some years ago, the Australian government declared that Australia had too many rabbits. So, they placed a bounty on rabbits. As a result, many enterprising people started raising rabbits! :-) The analogous phenomenon for the T visa is that large numbers of foreign nationals now will come to the U.S. to pick up a quickie Master's and then get hired under the T visa.

Just as the MSCE (computer technician) schools seized up the ITAA report's claim of an IT labor shortage to drum up enrollment (apparently quite unjustifiably, as I pointed out the other day in my mail about my friends who shelled out thousands of dollars for MSCE courses but now can't find work), the result of Lofgren's T visa will be that many small (or not small) colleges that currently use foreign students to keep their Master's programs afloat will greatly expand those programs. And schools which don't currently offer Master's programs will develop them, and will actively recruit foreign students for them.

The industry lobbyists will really prey on the congresspeople's naive respect for a Master's degree, a respect which is highly unwarranted. As I have said before, even the best Master's program in CS does not add much value to the productivity of programmers and engineers. Even in a GOOD Master's program, a GOOD student will derive only some "cultural" value, not specific technological knowledge which is directly applicable in jobs; if it is not a GOOD Master's program, or if it is not a GOOD student, then even that "cultural" benefit is not attained. 

Back in the early 1980s, when CS was first being developed at my university, UC Davis, our Master's program consisted 90% of foreign students, and the average quality of the students was simply awful. Almost none had any prior CS background, and their previous performance in their own fields was often very poor. They were just using our program as a quickie "trade school" CS degree, and would start with freshman programming classes. They even complained about having to compete with the freshman, whom they (correctly) perceived as smarter than them.

Since that time we at UCD have made vast improvements, and almost all of our foreign students today are people with near-perfect GRE scores and degrees from the top schools in their home countries (the IITs in India, Peking University and CUST in China, etc.). But there are literally hundreds of schools with Master's programs in CS which look like ours did back in 1982---90% foreign students, with a very, very low bar for admission. And since most employers don't use good methods to screen applicants, these weak people do get hired. (Another typical factor leading to their getting hired is that they will be hired by an employer or manager who is a fellow immigrant of the same nationality.)

It is also important to note that Lofgren's proposal does NOT require that the person's American degree be in CS or engineering. This too will have big implications, as follows. Even currently, a large number of computer science students from China do not study CS when they first come to the U.S. as foreign students; instead, they first start a Master's in mathematics and then switch to a CS program. These are students who got a Bachelor's degree in CS in China. Why would they suddenly make a brief switch to math, then back to CS? The reason is financial support: At many universities in the U.S. it is difficult to get financial support (e.g. teaching assistantships) in CS but easy in math. They use math to save up some money, and then switch to CS.

With the advent of the T visa, you would see a lot more of this. CS graduates from China would come to the U.S., pick up an MS in math in order to qualify for the T visa, and then be hired by a U.S. firm and sponsored for the T. Note carefully that the U.S. employer would be hiring them on the strength of their COMPUTER SCIENCE degree, not their math degree. So the congresspeople people who vote for the T visa, thinking "Well, at least these people will have advanced training in CS," will be badly fooled.

I will close with one final point, the most important point of all: WE ALREADY HAVE A SURPLUS PROGRAMMERS AND ENGINEERS. The T visa would just exacerbate our current problems, most notably age discrimination. Again, Lofgren and the industry lobbyists (the ones who support her; some may still prefer increasing the H-1B quota directly) are very cleverly obfuscating the issue, by dwelling on the fraud allegations. It completely distracts attention away from the central issue, which is that we don't have a shortage of programmers and engineers in the first place. 

Dr. Norm Matloff

 

02/28/01