Of Immigration and Indenturement
The Magic Kingdom and the H-1B

ComputerWorld recently published an account that gets at an important aspect of the immigration debate that doesn’t often take center stage: the H-1B and L-1 visa program for high-skilled immigrants. At issue is the allegation that Disney fired anywhere between 135 and “several hundred” of its IT staff and replaced them with workers mainly from India, many of whom were presumed to be on H-1B’s. The article goes on to note that Disney is at the forefront of a movement to raise the cap on the number of these visas issued each year:

Disney CEO Bob Iger is one of eight co-chairs of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a leading group advocating for an increase in the H-1B visa cap. Last Friday, this partnership was a sponsor of an H-1B briefing at the U.S. Capitol for congressional staffers. The briefing was closed to the press.

One of the briefing documents handed out at the congressional forum made this claim: “H-1B workers complement – instead of displace – U.S. Workers.” It explains that as employers use foreign workers to fill “more technical and low-level jobs, firms are able to expand” and allow U.S. workers “to assume managerial and leadership positions.”

For the sponsoring company, what could be better? Management gets the compliant, lower-cost foreign labor often associated with outsourcing without having to deal with the hassles of unreliable remote monitoring or the overhead of having to open a satellite office in Bangalore.

But for foreign workers, there’s a catch: the employee is tied to the company that sponsors the visa. She cannot switch jobs, quit to found a startup, or indeed leave in protest of lower pay or dissatisfaction without forfeiting her immigration status. Moreover, upon termination, she is required to leave the country (unless, as is unlikely, she is able to find a second, established employer here in the U.S. to sponsor her directly).

A healthy U.S. immigration policy, as opposed to what we currently have, would encourage responsible levels of legal immigration, ideally adjustable to prevailing economic conditions, and have a high priority for skilled workers. It would also keep illegal immigration as low as is possible.

In addition, what a healthy immigration policy must not do—at either the low- or high-skilled level—is displace American jobs purely for corporate profit while at the same time creating an entire class of workers who do not enjoy the full rights of citizenship. The H-1B program as currently constituted, unfortunately, seems to do both those things. High-skilled Americans either lose their jobs or have their wages depressed, and America doesn’t get many of the usual benefits of allowing talented immigrants into our country through traditional means: the innovation, entrepreneurship, and drive that it adds to our culture and economy.

The H-1B workers at Disney might be more white-collar than the indocumentados on a California fruit farm. Likewise, the laid-off IT staff might be less down on its luck than inner-city African Americans no longer able to find first jobs in construction. But the pattern—and the problem—are unfortunately similar.

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