Debugging Immigration 

                        Norman Matloff

                National Review, October 9, 1995

(Dateline Silicon Valley.) In mid-September dozens of lobbyists for computer industry employers descended upon Capitol Hill. Companies such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems protested that congressional proposals to place restrictions on skills-based immigration policies would undermine America's leadership in the world computer industry. Histrionics were the preferred mode of communication, as in Sun vice president Ken Alvarez's claim that the legislation ``is going to kill us,'' by blocking Sun's ability to hire ``the best talent in the world.''

Yet this rhetoric simply does not jibe with the facts. America's major technological advances in the industry have overwhelmingly been made by native talent. This can be seen in rough form, for example, in the awards given by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the nation's leading computer science professional society. Of the 39 recipients of the ACM Software System Awards, only one has been an immigrant. Of the 17 recipients of the Eckert-Mauchly Award, given for advances in computer hardware, none has been an immigrant.

The true situation has rather little to do with hiring ``talent,'' and has a lot to do with employer desires to hire cheap, compliant labor.

For example, Lev Ivanov (a pseudonym) immigrated to the U.S. from Russia 15 years ago. He recently had a startling experience when he interviewed for a position with a software firm in New York. First, Ivanov was surprised to find that almost all of the company's technical staff were foreign-born. He was even more taken aback when the employer, expressing interest in hiring him, began to explain 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.

Foreign nationals are quite happy to accept lower salaries in exchange for green cards. A statistical analysis performed by the author on the 1990 Census data revealed that average salaries for foreign-born computer professionals in Silicon Valley were nearly $7,000 lower than among natives of the same age and level of education.

There is no shortage of domestic labor. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Softpac of Austin, Texas estimates that the software industry needed approximately 40,000 new workers in 1994. This is less than the 51,000 new computer science graduates our universities produced. Softpac notes that though these numbers are only approximations, they certainly call into question the 30,000 work visas granted to foreign computer programmers in 1994.

Employers counter that they cannot find American workers who are ``qualified'' for the jobs being filled by foreign nationals. What this means is that the employers have overdefined job requirements, insisting on experience with specific software technologies. Such requirements, even if set by sincere employers, are usually unwarranted. Microsoft lobbyist Ira Rubinstein, for example, claims that Microsoft hires foreign nationals because ``[the foreign workers] have specific skills [needed for the industry] remain technologically competitive.'' Yet even Rubinstein's own boss, Microsoft's CEO and founder, Bill Gates, disagrees. Asked last year about his hiring criteria Gates said, ``We're not looking for any specific knowledge, because things change so fast, and it's easy to learn stuff. You've got to have an excitement about software, a certain intelligence...It's not the specific knowledge that counts.''

Any competent programmer can become productive in a new technology within a month or so. A study cited by software engineering guru Barry Boehm, for example, indicates that programmers reach about 80% of their full productivity level in a new technology within one month, and full productivity within four months.

Employer claims to need workers with advanced degrees do not hold water either. Though graduate study does have a beneficial broadening effect, there are virtually no jobs in the computer industry which need skills taught in a graduate curriculum. Gates does not even have a bachelor's degree, let alone graduate training. Also lacking a bachelor's degree is Larry Ellison, founder and CEO of the database software giant Oracle---another heavy importer of foreign computer programmers. Again, intellectual power, not paper credentials, is what really counts.

Employers' obsession with paper credentials also forms a major obstacle to the 20,000 programmers laid off from the defense industry. With only a modest degree of retraining, these proven software engineers could be making valuable contributions in the computer industry. Instead, most are now working in nontechnical jobs, even as security guards and pizza deliverers.

Another factor underlying the hiring of foreign nationals is the phenomenon of networked hiring within an immigrant group. This has often been cited by immigration economists in analyses of low-skilled labor markets, but it arises with high-tech jobs as well. In Silicon Valley, the term _immigrant_ is virtually synonymous with the word _Chinese_. Among foreign-born computer professionals there, approximately three-fourths are of Chinese ethnicity. One often sees Silicon Valley companies in which certain divisions are almost entirely Chinese. (Many Chinese engineers in the Silicon Valley will spend the majority of a typical day speaking Mandarin.) Most hiring is done via word of mouth, so the Chinese immigrant social network ensures that the group will continue to be Chinese, with U.S. natives not even being aware of openings.

The concentration of Chinese in Silicon Valley led immigration commentator Francis Fukuyama to draw the conclusion that the computer industry depends particularly on ethnic Chinese for its technical edge. Yet, quite contrary to Fukuyama's inference, Chinese cultural traits actually tend to produce a negative result. The rote-memory approach to learning in Chinese, Japanese and other East Asian cultures tends to produce workers who are not innovative, not good at problem solving, and who need excessive amounts of supervisory help.

This is again reflected in the ACM awards for industrial innovation. Of the 56 award winners, there are no foreign-born Chinese and only one Chinese-American. Similarly, in spite of the large numbers of Chinese foreign students in U.S. computer science Ph.D. programs, of the 35 ACM awards for outstanding Ph.D. dissertations, none of the recipients has been of Chinese ethnicity (20 have been U.S. natives, five have been from Europe and Israel, and five from India). Again, virtually no jobs in the computing field require graduate work, but this complete lack of Chinese winners of the dissertation award further illustrates the basic cultural problem: the rote-memory approach to learning---called _tian yazi_, ``stuff the duck''---is simply not conducive to technical creativity.

Supporters of the current immigration policy on skilled immigrants claim that if American employers are not allowed to hire immigrant computer professionals at low wages in the U.S., the employers will ship the work to foreign countries. It is true that some companies are experimenting with this, but it is not likely to become the major mode of operation of the industry. The misunderstandings caused by long-distance communication and the problems of highly-disparate time zones and so on can result in major difficulties, unmet deadlines and a general loss of productivity.

Computers play a vital role in our nation's economy, defense infrastructure, and so on---as vital a role as oil. Thus, excessive use of imported computer professionals is arguably as risky as relying on imported oil. Genuine immigration policy reform is imperative.


Norman Matloff, a former software developer in Silicon Valley, is a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis. A speaker of Chinese, he has been active in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years.