By Shahryar Malik
The name Sanjay Mavinkurve seldom rings a bell with computer scientists, dedicated Facebook users, or even Harvard graduates from the Class of 2003. However, Sanjay was the original computer programmer who was recruited by the Winklevoss twins at Harvard to produce part of the code for what would later become sensationalized as Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. Unlike his successor Mark Zuckerberg, Sanjay did not have the liberty to stay on and continue programming Facebook, or more accurately, the Harvard Connection. Upon graduating from Harvard, Sanjay needed a corporate sponsor to file for his H1-B visa so that he could continue to work and live in the United States. He now works for a sleepy Google sales outpost in Canada. While Sanjay’s name does not draw mention in the blockbuster hit that chronicles Facebook’s story, The Social Network, he has become the poster-child for proponents of the H1-B visa debate that has captured the attention of US policy-makers.
Tech firms in Silicon Valley such as Google and Microsoft are perhaps the most outspoken critics of the government’s policy reinstating the strict quota of 65,000 H1-B visas for foreign nationals to work temporarily in the United States. According to a New York Times article, Google alone spends about $20 million a year on its immigration efforts — including lobbying, administration, and fees to law firms. Microsoft, while it would not disclose expenses, probably spends more. Its in-house immigration team numbers 20 lawyers and staff members. Silicon Valley giants have spent top-dollar in Washington D.C so they can recruit and keep foreign nationals who graduate from prestigious engineering programs across the United States.
Eager for top talent, companies made 163,000 applications for the 65,000 slots in 2008. Google applied for 300 of them; 90 were denied. The United States’ stringent visa policy for skilled immigrant workers means that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook continue to lose out on brilliant programmers like Sanjay Mavinkurve who can be a real driving force for innovation in an economy that relies heavily on innovation as a competitive advantage and source of rapid job growth. Proponents of the H1-B visa begin by narrating a story of a brilliant programmer who came to the United States, became extremely successful, and started an innovative business that is currently providing employment to a large number of people.
Critics of H1-B visas, allowing companies to recruit talented workers abroad, counter that adding to the existing pool of foreign workers steals jobs and depresses wages for US workers. Often times foreigners, seeking to enjoy the higher quality of life offered by the United States, misuse the H1-B visa avenue for temporary employment in the United States and approach “body shops” of questionable legality. Body shops have been known to masquerade unskilled workers as programmers and engineers to bring them into the United States, where they work regular jobs at lower wages.
Although nowhere near as subversive as body shops, foreign workers’ lack of bargaining power with their US employers also depresses wages for US citizens. Skilled H1-B claimants remain tied to their employers because immigration paperwork, including re-submitting an application for Green cards or permanent residency, tends to be cumbersome and has few guarantees. Since foreign nationals are frequently un-willing to renegotiate pay increases with employers, the rationale follows that US workers would have also had a hard time securing wage increases with the prevailing excess supply of workers in the market.
The shared sentiment between critics seems to be that retracting H1-B visa issuances will propel under-paid skilled foreign workers to return to developing countries where they can contribute more meaningfully toward economic development by benevolently and sometimes magically transferring the knowledge gained in the United States. While I cannot dispute the economic rationale that adding 65,000 skilled workers to the labor force expands supply and depresses wages, even though it is a still only a tiny fraction of the skilled US labor force, I am not satisfied by the argument that the United States should force workers to return to developing countries. In reality, hardware and software engineers receiving formal education and training in the United States are not going to return home to Rwanda and Pakistan, where they lack the infrastructure and opportunity to continue as engineers. Rather, they will migrate to China and India in what culminates as the transfer of a competitive advantage. The innovation-led economy, once carefully nurtured by a nourishing blend of US patent and corporate law, will slowly be eroded by the exodus of foreign talent.