Sunday, June 15, 2008

Education and Immigration in America

Education in America

The political rumblings about the American education system can be felt from coast to coast, but no one can deny the global superiority of the colleges and universities in the United States. Every year more than two hundred thousand foreign students study at American universities because of the strong primary research, world renowned faculty, and incredible facilities. There are more than 150,000 college students from China and India alone, with all of them hoping for a great education and a chance for a better life. While some of these foreign students inevitably plan on studying in the US and returning to jobs at home, the appeal of the opportunities and lifestyle that can be attained by working in the United States is too great for the vast majority. After years of study, new friendships, and adapted lifestyles, many students would find leaving the U.S. to be difficult and possibly a sign of failure.

It is often reported that relatively few American students pursue careers in engineering or computer science compared to students in Asia or India. The vast majority of students in these fields, both at American and foreign universities, are non-Americans with the Chinese and Indians dominating these fields. Pundits rationalize this phenomenon by asserting that an inferiority of primary and secondary math and science education in the United States leads to poor preparation for technical careers. Thus, the critics profess, American students either choose less rigorous fields or are unable to compete in the global marketplace for engineering talent. The possibility that American students make rational informed decisions regarding their career prospects is often ignored, and instead focus is placed on the perceived disparity in primary education.

The Case for Immigration

Facing a void of native born engineering talent, American companies clamor for foreign born engineering and computer science talent. The cries for an expansion of the H-1B visa program, a non-immigrant visa for skilled workers in specialty occupations, grows louder as the quota of available visas is depleted at an accelerating rate. Employers, on behalf of their foreign employees, can apply for these three year visas (with a possibility for a three year extension) regardless of the availability of qualified local talent. Once an employee obtains an H-1B visa, he or she can apply for a green card and attempt to obtain permanent legal status.

For foreign students educated in the United States, the acquisition of an H-1B visa is the first step towards achieving their goals of permanent residency and a better life. Employees quickly learn that this visa does not come without a price. Immediately, the employee becomes dependent upon his employer for his right to reside in the United States much as slaves depend on their masters. The desperate quest to secure employment after school leads many immigrants to accept below market salaries or less interesting work due to the conveyed value of the visa. Once employment is accepted, the foreign worker can often be exploited and abused due to the structural restrictions on job mobility. If an employee wished to leave her current employer, she would have to find another employer willing to sponsor her for an H-1B visa and must ensure continuity of employment. More than 10 days of unemployment violates the terms of the visa and results in eviction of the employee from the United States.

From the employer’s perspective, the characteristics of the visa program lead to very desirable employees that will often ignore employer abuses and expect less compensation while effecting low turnover rates, higher levels of productivity, and greater stability. The constant threat of involuntary termination leads foreign workers to exhibit very cooperative behavior as they understand the penalties for pursuing greater rights within the workplace. It is no mystery why employers embrace the H-1B visa program. They obtain cheap labor trained at the best US schools and willing to subjugate their needs to that of their employer. Compared to the more demanding and highly mobile native born employee, skilled immigrant labor in the United States has impaired free will, less career flexibility, and little negotiating power leading to abuse and exploitation.

The indentured servitude of skilled H-1B workers differs little from the exploitation of illegal aliens in the United States except for the implied Congressional approval. In both cases, American workers suffer due to depressed wage rates, poorer working conditions, and reduced career opportunities. One’s career success is often dependent on the learning opportunities in the formative years, yet the exploitation of foreign workers for the sake of greater profits restricts access to entry level positions for many Americans. The wide predominance of foreign born workers in occupations such as engineering and computer science combined with rampant outsourcing leads Americans to perceive these jobs as less stable and financial rewarding. Employers have secured a workforce of submissive highly trained employees that, through the conveyance of visa and residency benefits, suppress the average salary and make the positions less desirable to capable intelligent Americans.


While skilled foreign workers fill essential roles at American employers, the current immigration policies are flawed in their bias towards exploitation of immigrants at the expense of both the immigrant and the American workforce. Companies are not required to identify the best candidate or ensure that there is no qualified American that can fill the position. It is against the law, however, to pay the foreign workers less than the prevailing wage rate and use these workers to displace non-immigrant workers. Compliance monitoring is week at best, and attempts to litigate violations of the law have often resulted in court ordered reforms rather than monetary damages (see Santiglia v. Sun Microsystems 2005 Decision). Until modifications to existing laws are enacted which prohibit the displacement of qualified American workers and provide greater rights to immigrants with visas, both parties will be disadvantaged while executive management and the wealthy elite are enriched at their expense.