“H-1B” and “racial injustice” probably aren’t terms most people would believe have much to do with each other. That’s why a recent CNBC interview with a leading African American financier deserves your attention even if it is two weeks old. Because he shows not only that they’re intimately connected, but that even someone who is focusing on the link needs to think much more about how exactly it works, and what needs to be done about it.
For those who don’t follow immigration issues closely, “H-1B” is the name of the category of visa that the federal government allots business for foreigners they supposedly need to employ because their “specialty” skills can’t be found in the domestic workforce. The skills cover a wide range, but according to this organization (which loves the program) most of the visas requested by U.S. companies are for science and technology occupations, and indeed their prevalence in these fields is responsible for most of the controversy they’ve generated.
For evidence abounds that, contrary to their claims, the tech companies that seek these foreign workers so ardently aren’t using them because they’re geniuses, but because they’re cheap – and because they need to remain tied to the company that sponsored them if they have any hope of getting permanent legal residence in the United States. (My go-to source on this issue is University of California-Davis computer scientist and immigration authority Norman Matloff, whose work can be found at this terrific blog.)
As a result, H-1B opponents argue that their use undercuts American pay levels in science and technology fields, and severely undercuts the argument that gaining these skills is one of the best guarantees available to young Americans of prospering in the turbulent economy of recent decades. But the program damages the economy in a way less often noted by opponents: It guts the incentives American business might develop to invest in American workers’ skills generally, or to press government to get the country’s education act together so as to make sure that the skills they need are available domestically.
And this is where the racial injustice and related economic inequality issues come into play – along with that CNBC interview. The subject, Jim Reynolds, is an inspiring African American success story who’s long been active in civic affairs in a city with one of the nation’s biggest African American populations – his native Chicago. (See this profile.) CNBC brought him on the air on July 2 to talk about racial diversity on Wall Street.
The conversation proceeded along these lines till it was about two thirds of the way through, when Reynolds made this totally unprompted and stunning pivot. Its worth quoting in full, and came in response to a question on whether he thinks Wall Street is genuinely committed to hiring more minorities in the wake of the George Floyd killing and ensuing tsunami of nationwide calls to end racism and related economic injustices. (I also need to present it because this point didn’t make it into the CNBC news story accompanying the interview video that’s linked above.)
“You ask if I think this is real…. I was at an Economics Club dinner a couple of years ago…and one of the top CEOs in the city [Chicago], actually, one of the top CEOS in the country – a Fortune 100 company – spoke to the group, and what he said to the group that one of his most frustrating experiences is working with H-1B programs, and why they won’t let his company recruit more of the talent that they need in the tech space….[H]e said that in the middle of downtown Chicago, where we have African American and Hispanic youth in the city, ten minutes from where he was standing, that have…let’s call it 40, 50, 60 percent unemployment, that go to schools that don’t really…teach them this sort of thing, and I wondered why he didn’t even think about this. Sure, you can go to China, and you can go to India, and recruit that talent. And that talent – and I’ve spent a lot of time in China – that talent started getting developed in middle school When they come here, and they go to the quants on Wall Street and the quants in Silicon Valley – and they do dominate that space – they started studying this stuff like when they were eight years old, nine years old. And I’ve started thinking about and talking about and I’m working with our wonderful Mayor Lori Lightfoot about, let’s get these corporations thinking about – and this time is great – investing in these black and Hispanic schools. Now. Let’s grab our young black and Hispanic kids in middle school. Let’s have a Facebook program in the school, Microsoft program, Alphabet program, Apple program in these schools. I think that’s an opportunity.”
I couldn’t have done a better job of making the H-1B-racial injustice connection. But as I suggested above, Reynold is still missing a piece of the puzzle: The CEO he mentions, and others like him, simply aren’t going to make those investments because they don’t have to. And they don’t have to precisely because they have a cheaper alternative – and one that doesn’t require them to deal with the kinds of workforce training challenges they’ve never faced: the H-1B program.
So if Reynolds really wants to expand opportunity for disadvantaged minority youth (and other young Americans) all over the country, he’ll start pressing for the elimination of the H-1B program, and for broader immigration policies that deny businesses in all sectors the easy option of hiring low-cost foreigners – and in the process, creating even more power over workers and thereby intensifying the downward pressure they can keep exerting on their wages and benefits.
Reynolds, moreover, is in a particularly good position to lobby for these changes effectively because, as made clear in the profile linked above, his close friends include a fellow named Barack Obama – who has more than a little influence on the liberals and progressives who have emerged (along with Corporate America) as among the stubbornest opponents of immigration policies that put American workers – including of course minority workers – first.