Coding is a job you just can’t fake. Your stuff either works or it doesn’t. You can either do the job or you can’t. So ranking people according to skill is much easier. It’s a profession that is intensely competitive, and clearly not for everyone.
I can remember so well sitting around the lunch table with some employees at Google’s headquarters. Forty-five minutes in, everyone started getting antsy to get back to work. In the blink of an eye, they disappeared to get back to their desks. They are profoundly aware that performance is everything, and other great performers are ready to displace them at anytime.
Because the US is the world center of digital tech development, the demand for high-level coders has never been higher. Companies who employ workers don’t give a flying fig about your nationality. They want your talent now, from wherever you hail.
The Way In
US immigration policy has long accommodated this demand through a program called the H1-B, which pertains to skilled workers. The program permits 65,000 people with a college degree, and 20,000 with higher-level training, to work in the US for three years, during which time they can apply for green-card status. It is a harrowing life for those chosen, but it is better than being on the rejection list.
Each year more than a quarter of a million people from abroad file applications, some as thick as six inches. The chances of getting picked are good enough to keep hopes high but bad enough so that no one banks on getting in. And guess who picks the winners? It’s a lottery. A computer.
Even for the many critics of immigration, this program should pass muster. The whole system is ridiculously irrational, cruel, and self defeating, even if you believe in an America First immigration policy. Denying talented people jobs, infringing on the rights of businesses to hire whom they want, is an innovation killer. It causes the US to lose its competitive advantage, lowers economic growth, and denies all of us access to cool innovations that would otherwise make our lives better.
Even for the many critics of immigration, this program should pass muster. These people are not security risks. They aren’t going on welfare. They have the strongest possible incentive to acculturate, obey the law, and contribute mightily to American enterprise. What’s not to like?
The Way Out
So, yes, the program needs dramatic reform: it should be expanded many times over. However, the worst way to reform it is to restrict the program. In fact that seems unthinkable. And yet, we are learning with the Trump administration that nothing is unthinkable. Restricting the number of coders who have access to the H1-B program is exactly what the government is doing right now.
Restrictions on immigration ultimately give more power to the state to oppress its own citizensIn recent days, immigration authorities announced a seemingly small change in what applications will be considered valid. No longer will coding be considered a “specialty occupation.” Further, the Justice Department announced that it will be conducting close investigations of tech companies that rely on the H1-B program for its coders. They are looking to make sure that companies are not denying Americans jobs in the search for quality candidates.
On the first point, this is a completely arbitrary administrative change, enacted without any Congressional vote or public comment. It’s the very embodiment of an independent bureaucracy run amok and acquiescing to political pressure from the regime in power. As for the investigations, here is a clear example of a hard truth: restrictions on immigration ultimately give more power to the state to oppress its own citizens.
What’s especially bizarre here is that this program has absolutely nothing to do with the nightmare scenarios of teeming masses of pillaging, raping terrorists pouring in across leaky borders that formed the basis of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric during the election. He did criticize the H1-B program in passing but most observers figured that he was once again out on his usual limb, speaking on issues about which he knew nothing.
What’s more, there is not even a job displacement issue here. If Google wants to hire a programmer from abroad, it can do so with the H1-B program or simply by contracting abroad (which is not currently restricted, thank the Lord). As an American citizen coder, with whom do you want to compete? A foreign resident making $200K or a foreign worker paid $100 an hour? The former represents a much higher cost to American business, so the arrangement gives the greatest possible advantage to existing citizens. (Special thank you to FEE president Lawrence Reed for making that point to me.)
The bureaucracy is on overdrive, denying visas, keeping out qualified workers, and instituting new forms of country exit controls.In the first months of the Trump presidency, we’ve yet to see any action on health care or taxes, two issues that drove millions to the polls to vote for him. But on immigration, there’s been plenty of action. The bureaucracy is on overdrive, denying visas, keeping out qualified workers, instituting new forms of country exit controls, and even mandating forms of extreme vetting that could compromise your own communications with your friends in Europe and the UK.
On this topic, there seems to be absolute focus. But to what end? Success will only lead American business to be less competitive, less innovative, less able to forge a brilliant future for all of us. What is the goal here? Just to keep people out? How can anyone truly believe that this objective alone is a path toward greatness?
Even for critics of immigration policy, the H1-B program represents the right kind of immigration. It is about skills, invitation, and the right of business to employ the most talented people. Something has gone very wrong with an administration that seeks to dismantle something that should obviously be dramatically expanded.
Here’s a final issue that irks me. Government is demanding the most extreme forms of vetting, investigation, and compliance on the part of business, even as no one is more affected by labor choices than business itself. But as for itself, the government is completely satisfied with the most random system of all for selecting who gets in and who is kept out. Government has outsourced its job to a pair of dice.