Reforming Legal Immigration
“Mr. President, we must not allow an engineer gap!”


Mark Krikorian

Jennifer Wedel (an “avid Republican”!) got the drop on President Obama the other day by asking him why, with so many American engineers like her husband unemployed, he wants to import even more engineers from abroad. Obama responded that industry tells him there’s a “huge demand” for engineers around the country, and that she should send her husband’s résumé to the White House.

The Republican National Committee has leapt at the opportunity, launching a site called Not Better Off, highlighting the weak job market during the president’s tenure and urging people to send him their résumés.

It’s a nimble political response, but there’s one problem: The Republicans also want to import cheap foreign labor for tech companies. The Bloomberg/Murdoch group Partnership for a New American Economy (a/k/a “Billionaires for Open Borders”) ran an ad in South Carolina showing that every GOP presidential candidate wants increases in “skilled” immigration, concluding that “there’s really no debate . . . America needs high-skilled immigrants to create new jobs and grow our economy.”

Actually, there is debate. And the crux of the debate is the question, how skilled is “high-skilled”? Where do we draw the line? At a bachelor’s degree in a “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field? Master’s? Ph.D.?

The discussion has focused on this because the tech industry has shifted some of its lobbying money from the customary push for increases in the H-1B visa (ostensibly a program to import temporary labor) to new proposals to automatically give a permanent green card to any foreign student receiving a degree in the U.S. in a technical field. This is commonly referred to as the “staple a green card to the diploma” approach, and is found in a number of bills or proposals, such as the “Staple Act” and the “Brain Act.” The issue being considered by lawmakers, then, is which diplomas to staple green cards to.

There’s not much of a push to give special immigration access to foreigners receiving bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields because there’s nothing particularly special or “high-skilled” about them. Don’t take my word for it; Darla Whitaker, the head of human resources for Texas Instruments, told Congress last fall that TI doesn’t sponsor foreign students with bachelor’s degrees for green cards or “temporary” H-1B visas because they don’t need to — there are plenty of American students getting bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.

What’s more, my colleague Steven Camarota has calculated from Census Bureau data that in 2010 there were 1.8 million working-age, native-born Americans with bachelor’s degrees in engineering who were unemployed, no longer in the labor force, or working in fields besides engineering. That’s not all technical fields, mind you, just engineering.

At the other end of the skill spectrum, there’s little need for such a program, since pretty much all foreign Ph.D. recipients who want to stay end up staying already. A new report from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (on the campus of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, made famous by the Manhattan Project) shows that nearly two-thirds of all foreigners on temporary visas who received science doctorates in 2004 were still here in 2009. That figure is actually held down by low stay rates of people from developed countries, who have more interest in returning home; the figures for China and India, two of the three top source countries, were 89 percent and 79 percent, respectively.