Foreign Nationals Vs. U.S. Workers San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed March 28, 1995 Norman Matloff
The University of California is investing millions of dollars in training students for careers in computer science. Yet this investment is often going to waste. The computer industry fills many technical positions with foreign nationals, shunting American graduates of UC into non-technical positions, if hiring them at all.
Mr. Ivanov, for instance, recently had a startling experience when he interviewed for a position with a software firm in New York. The employer explained how the company would sponsor Ivanov for immigration. When Ivanov replied that he was already a naturalized U.S. citizen, he was told that the company was no longer interested in him.
Many computer professionals tell similar stories, claiming that employers hire foreign nationals out of a desire for cheap, compliant labor. Falcon International, a General Dynamics subcontractor, has even described these employees as being "indentured."
Ron Unz, a Bay Area software entrepreneur and Republican candidate for governor in last June's primary election, has an opposite point of view. Noting that around 30 percent of the Silicon Valley's computer professionals are foreign-born, he says employer sponsorship of foreign nationals for immigration is crucial to the industry's technical edge.
Yet it clearly would be an unjustified leap in logic to conclude, solely from this 30 percent figure, that immigrants are crucial to Silicon Valley. For example, 40 percent of America's small motels are owned by immigrants from India, yet no one would infer from this that the industry owes its existence to Indians.
The true situation has little to do with the computer industry's quest for "technical edge." During the 1980s, many foreign nationals were lured to U.S. university computer science curricula by the prospect of being sponsored by American employers for green cards after graduation. The presence of the foreign nationals left the employers with no incentive to aggressively promote computer studies among American students at the same schools. And employers often paid foreign workers lower salaries.
Given the industry's labor shortage of that time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service readily granted employment-based green cards. But toward the end of that decade, the industry's period of go-go expansion gave way to a more moderate, mature growth pattern. Meanwhile, the domestic labor supply caught up to, and surpassed, demand. Yet employers continue to hire foreign computer professionals today.
In many cases, an employer will justify hiring a foreign national by saying that an American could not be found with specialized skills needed for the job. Yet proficiency in most new software technologies can be acquired quite quickly by any competent programmer.
Softpac of Austin, Texas, estimates that the software industry needed about 40,000 new workers last year. This is fewer than the 51,000 new computer science graduates our universities produced. Yet the number of foreign computer programmers granted work visas in 1994 exceeded 30,000.
Sadly, these abuses of immigration policy are pitting Asian foreign nationals against Asian Americans. The latter comprise about 50 percent of the new graduates of computer curricula in California universities. This is ironic, as Unz has been urging Republican leaders to oppose immigration policy reform, on the grounds that it would alienate minorities.
Let's allow the computer training of American students to be put to use. Immigration policy should continue to facilitate the flow of world-class scientists and engineers, but the routine granting of employment-based green cards and work visas should be terminated.
Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis.