Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be diving deeper into partisan
politics Monday when he speaks in San Francisco before a screening of
"Documented," a new documentary that highlights the plight of young immigrants
who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
But many of Silicon Valley's biggest firms have spent millions trying to shape a different part of the immigration overhaul legislation before Congress -- the part that critics say ensures that they have a steady supply of highly skilled immigrant workers at the lowest possible cost.
Tech interests want to increase the number of temporary guest worker visas, known as H-1B visas, in the immigration measures wending through Congress. And Congress is listening. The Senate passed a bill that would double the number of visas issued annually, and many in the House are supportive.
The boost in this type of visa -- which enables employers to temporarily hire workers holding at least an undergraduate degree -- comes in response to a long-held Silicon Valley claim: There's a shortage of qualified U.S. tech workers to fill the available jobs.
But a growing number of academics and others who have studied the claim say it isn't backed up by reality. They say the employers prefer foreign workers because they can hire and retain them at a lower cost.
Not the 'best and brightest'
"We don't find any evidence of a shortage," said Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy and planning at Rutgers University and co-author of a recent study that disputes the conventional valley wisdom.
Salzman's April study found there was "no lack of domestic graduates or existing domestic STEM workers." STEM is the acronym for workers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Economically, if there was a shortage, wages would "get bid up," Salzman said. "You don't find that anywhere. In fact, you find quite the opposite."
While tech leaders often say that they need to expand the visa program so that they can attract the "best and the brightest" -- the foreign students they're attracting aren't the best nor the brightest, said Norman Matloff, a UC Davis professor of computer science and a longtime critic of the tech industry's cries about a shortage.
"You know and I know that the industry hires the best PR people in the world, and they know what buttons to push," Matloff said.
"They're pushing the buttons of people in Congress. Saying 'best and brightest' is one. The word 'innovation' is another. 'We're going to have to send it offshore.' They know they're going to get a response if they say these things," Matloff said.
"Compared to Americans of the same education and age, the former foreign students turn out to be weaker than, or at most comparable to, the Americans in terms of salary, patent applications, Ph.D. dissertation awards, and quality of the doctoral program in which they studied," Matloff wrote in a study for the Economic Policy Institute. Several labor union leaders serve on the institute's board of directors.
But one of Silicon Valley's leaders said the academic studies aren't seeing what employers are.
"If I were a flip person, and I'm not, I'd say, 'Climb out of the academic chair and try to run a business and recruit talent,' " said Carl Guardino, CEO of the
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