Two years after Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley powerbrokers began their highly-publicized, heavily-funded push for immigration reform, the tech industry may be about to get exactly what it has hoped for: an enormous increase in the number of foreign, highly-skilled immigrants allowed to work in the US.
Legislation proposed in the Senate by a group led by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would increase the number of H-1B visas from 65,000 to as many as 195,000 per year, with special exemptions on limits for immigrants with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (so-called "STEM" graduates) from United States universities.
But opponents of the legislation say that the tech industry's major talking point — that there aren't enough highly-skilled American workers to fill all of the job openings — is patently false.
"There is no evidence we know of that backs up their claims of a shortage," Hal Salzman, a Rutgers University professor of public policy who researches workforce development, told VICE News.
He added that multiple studies have illustrated how the industry's claims are misleading.
"They're overwhelmed with applicants," he said of tech companies. "They'll claim they're not as skilled — this, that, or the other thing — but it doesn't look like there's a shortage."
The industry's motivation for wanting more foreign workers, according to Salzman and others, is to be able to pay them thousands of dollars less per year than their American peers and exercise an extreme amount of control over them. Critics say that the reform is potentially harmful to the domestic labor force and the foreign workers that come here.
Proponents of expanding H-1B visas, meanwhile, insist this criticism is overblown, and point to their own set of studies validating the initiative.
"Our economy is generating 122,000 new job openings for computer related occupations each year, yet our schools are only graduating 51,000 students with bachelor's degrees in computer science annually," Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, which advocates immigration reform for skilled professionals, told VICE News. "As for wages, the evidence consistently has shown that H-1B workers are paid more money, not less, than their American counterparts. And the research has also clearly demonstrated that high-skilled immigrants create additional American jobs once they get here to the United States."
Though Hatch's bill enjoys bipartisan support in the Senate, it is stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) are pushing for greater protections of American workers before agreeing to allow any more foreign workers to immigrate. The committee is holding a hearing this morning called "Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers," with testimony from speakers including Salzman, the director of the American Immigration Council, and the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
"It's absurd to think that in this global marketplace we can maintain an insular, protectionist workforce," Hatch's spokesperson said last month.
Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, criticized the bill for failing to raise the minimum wage for H-1B workers and require the establishment of a database where employers would be required to post jobs for American workers for a certain amount of time.
"There's a lot of alarm about not having enough tech workers. The president spouts that all the time — he said the other day we don't have enough educated STEM people. They've done a really good PR job, and tech industry is a new important donor for sure," Costa said. "People on both sides of the aisle are falling over themselves to get in line for this money."
Though the tech industry was slow to lobby Washington on policy, in recent years it has ramped up its efforts considerably. Major tech companies now use traditional lobbying firms on Washington's K Street and spent $168 million on lobbying in 2014, according to Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics.
While Novak said that it's impossible to parse exactly how much money was devoted to an issue, one can see which of them are most important to companies based on how often they are mentioned in lobbying reports.
For Facebook and Microsoft, which are ranked second and third in terms of dollars spent on lobbying, immigration was mentioned more than any other issue except taxes. Google, which spent the most on lobbying, didn't mention immigration at all.
Though Facebook and Microsoft are apparently spending the most lobbying money on the issue, heaviest users of H-1B visas are offshore outsourcing companies.
Zuckerberg has been very vocal about the need for immigration reform, becoming the face of the lobbying group FWD.us and penning a Washington Post op-ed in 2013 in support of more H-1B visas.
"To lead the world in this new economy, we need the most talented and hardest-working people. We need to train and attract the best," he wrote. "Given all this, why do we kick out the more than 40 percent of math and science graduate students who are not US citizens after educating them? Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return?"
When approached to respond to the suggestion that an expansion of these visas is a cost-saving gambit that risks undermining both domestic and foreign workers, FWD.us sent VICE News a fact-sheet of debunked "myths." Among other things, it argued that wages for STEM positions are increasing, and that there are not enough domestic workers to fill the available jobs.
"The H-1B visa program helps ensure that the best and the brightest talent from across the globe can boost our country's economic growth, expand opportunity, and create American jobs," FWD.us President Todd Schulte said in a statement. "The simple fact is that the H-1B visa program provides immense economic benefits to our economy, and it's a false choice that we can't protect American workers and create a better system that allows American companies to get access to the best talent in the world — we can and must do both."
But critics of visa reform question the math in Zuckerberg's op-ed, and warn that the current reform proposals could have detrimental effects on the US tech workforce and immigrants who come here to work.
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Costa and Salzman said that there are thousands of Americans who graduate each year with degrees in computer science who choose not to enter the tech industry because of low wages, or apply for jobs that are given to foreign workers for a lower salary. If there were a true shortage of tech workers, Salzman noted, wages would increase.
"But they've been flat since the 1990s," he said. "I don't know of any market where there's a shortage of goods and the prices don't go up."
Salzman added that the industry uses H-1B visas to replace older workers with younger workers so that they can "cycle through workers and get savings."
"So when you've got a lot of guest workers coming in, they're always looking over your shoulder thinking, when will I be replaced?" he said. "It keeps you from asking for a raise or vacation. So even just the threat of this Congress bill puts a real chilling effect on the workforce."
The idea is that tech companies can keep wages low because they can pay foreign workers lower salaries, and immigrants are less inclined to speak up for better wages or working conditions for fear of being deported if companies don't renew their visas.
"The employer is the one that controls and owns the visa, applies for the visa," Costa said. "If an employer decides to fire you for whatever reason, your visa is automatically no longer valid, which makes you instantly deportable."
To make matters worse, an entire H-1B work recruitment industry has cropped up, charging foreign workers as much as $20,000 to place them with a US-based tech company.
"So if you're borrowed $10,000 or $20,000 from your family to do this, you're pretty afraid of losing that job and not being able to earn that money back," Costa remarked. "If there's abuse in the workplace, or you're not getting the wage you're promised or hours you're promised or are being forced to do something you're not supposed to do or that's unsafe, you're not likely to speak out because you're likely to be fired. And you're not going to make that money back, and you've got to take off or become an unauthorized migrant."
"What it creates is bonded labor," he said.
Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur who is now a fellow at Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, disagrees with H-1B reform critics. He argues that the US was too slow in enacting meaningful visa reform, and that America has become less competitive as a result.
"Now people who come here stay a year or two and go back home," he said. "The norm isn't for foreign students to stay here anymore. Foreign companies who want to start here won't even try."
He pointed to the Chinese tech company Alibaba and emerging companies in Brazil, Latin America, and Europe as evidence that the US is no longer as competitive as it used to be.
"Google and Facebook can buy all the talent they want — it's the startups who are struggling," he said. "The good thing is we have a powerful innovation system, and there are good things happening in Silicon Valley anyway, but the bad news is there's a lot happening in other countries that would've happened here if we had let people come here. America gave a gift to the world."
"The cat's out of the bag right now," he added. "The genie's out of the bottle. The damage is done."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen Photo via Flickr