A couple of weeks ago, during job interview season, I was having lunch with a few friends in Commons. My phone rang. An unanticipated blessing from New York blew into my ear. I stood up and rushed out of the dining hall, barely spelling out a “goodbye” to my friends.
They, of course, thought the job offer made me too thrilled to finish eating my food in a graceful manner. Not true. I didn’t lose my head. Instead of taking a celebratory walk to purchase five bottles of Champagne, I hurried to the Office of International Students and Scholars to fill out my Optional Practical Training application for the summer. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the governmental agency handling all immigration issues, needs up to 120 days to process my employment permit. I felt I couldn’t afford to waste a second.
That hurdle in getting hired is far from the last one for foreign students like me. No matter how much my boss will adore me over the summer, and no matter how hard those in-house lawyers will work on my full-time employment sponsorship application, there’s still no guarantee that I will get an H-1B visa, which will allow me to work lawfully in the United States after my one-year OPT period expires.
Currently, only 65,000 lucky ones out of 165,000 applicants are granted the visa each year. I may have the Yale bomb, and the power of my employer behind me, but who knows if Fortuna, the Goddess of Luck, will be on my side?
Blackstone and Fidelity, among other highly respected financial firms, have succumbed to the brutal reality of recruiting alien workers, and have chosen not to hire foreign students at all. Indeed, if neither top-notch legal expertise nor the name of Peter Lynch can guarantee the success of H-1B sponsorship, why waste the time and money?
What a tragedy — not only for foreign workers and firms, but also for the country that once prided itself on its openness to the brightest and finest. The populist claim of “American jobs for American people” has created a system that practically begs the most exceptional brains to work for America’s rivals around the world.
Yet despite its emotional appeal, barriers to hiring foreign skilled workers only work against their original purpose. Foreign skilled workers create, rather than steal, jobs for Americans. Consider a firm that cannot hire key engineers to design a new product due to the low H-1B quota. Had the firm been able to produce its product, a great number of American workers could have been hired to manufacture, market and sell it. By keeping the H-1B cap so low, this country is costing hundreds of thousands of workers their jobs. And don’t think American engineers are guaranteed to benefit. For a number of firms, they will be simply outsourcing the jobs by hiring foreign engineers in their home countries.
In addition, the nature of H-1B workers, highly educated and heftily compensated, make them ideal sources for government tax revenue. According to a Heritage Foundation report in May 2008, H-1B workers earn an average annual income of $80,000 to $110,000 — much higher than their American peers. Heritage calculations also figured that raising the H-1B cap to 195,000 visas would raise $69 billion in new tax revenue over eight years. This income would be especially helpful for a government struggling in a time of economic stress and gigantic budge deficit.
Perhaps most important, let’s not forget that a large percentage of H-1B applicants attended the pre-eminent (aka most expensive) universities in this country — on full scholarship. In other words, America is spending over $7 billion a year (assuming average annual tuition and living expense per person at $40,000) to train foreigners with supreme resources unavailable to most domestic students. It makes no sense for the country to invest so much in the most brilliant young people in the world, and then kick them back to India or China. Being a Good Samaritan is a merit, but maybe giving away free brain power at the expense of American taxpayers is trying too hard?
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Moscow grabbed the largest share of Germany industrial infrastructure: machinery, trucks, tanks and V2 rockets. The more sophisticated Americans, however, aimed at something else. Hundreds of German engineers were shipped to America and helped develop the U.S. aerospace industry with a clear advantage over the Soviets. Truman certainly understood that the human brain, regardless of its nationality, was most vital to keep America innovative, competitive and always moving forward. Today’s administration, perhaps, should take another look at that period of history.
Robert Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.