11/02/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

OPINION: Corporations Must Do More Than STEM Visas

by Peter M. Gunn

Last month, in a definitive picture of Congressional malfunction, the House failed to pass either the Democrat or the Republican version of a bill that would add an additional 55,000 visas for foreign-born residents who complete an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. The deadlock came because Republicans wanted to use these visas as a means to keep other undesirable foreigners out of the country (i.e. eliminate the Diversity Visa Lottery program so we don't make the mistake of, gasp, allowing more immigrants into the country, some of them from Africa). However, though the Republican version happens to be more distasteful, the bill in either form represents a forsaking of the American labor force and a further entrenching of class divisions on the backs of Silicon Valley and its megalomaniacal goals.

The need for additional STEM visas is borne out of the narrative of the "skills gap," which is a term of psychological warfare against the working class. The argument is simple: today's highly competitive technological global economy requires a labor force highly skilled in the very, very sophisticated concepts of computer programming, game theory algorithms, A/B testing, etc. and the products of the American education system just aren't up to the task. Thus, our chronic unemployment is a product of the stupidity of the American worker, not a failure of capital to make those jobs accessible. The "skills gap" has largely been disproven, but the narrative persists because of anecdotal examples of tech companies having difficulty hiring people. As a result, these companies must turn outward to the better educated work forces of (largely) rich East Asian countries and Western Europe, or they would if the government didn't keep standing in its way (aww, look at Silicon Valley in its big boy conservative pants).

To understand precisely what high-tech companies are complaining about, we first need to see what the immigration landscape looks like for them. Minus those who qualify for an O-1 "Individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement visa," foreign-born residents with advanced degrees from United States institutions (in any field) can apply for one of 65,000 H-1B temporary work visas, which go to those with specialty occupations, where "The degree requirement for the job is common to the industry or the job is so complex or unique that it can be performed only by an individual with a degree." This also applies to people who work with Department of Defense cooperative research and development projects and fashion models of "distinguished merit and ability." It certainly says something about this country, though I'm not sure what, that those are all in the same category. For permanent workers, those with advanced degrees must rely on EB-2 visas, i.e. the second choice out of five for employment-based visas, with a quota of around 40,000.

The visas proposed by the STEM Jobs Act (aka the Republican one) would be for people agreeing to work "not less (sic) than five years" in a STEM field, which seems to mean that they are permanent, and either way would privilege this new class of global human capital over internationally recognized athletes, individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement, and hilariously enough, NAFTA professionals. The Democratic bill, the Attracting the Best and Brightest Act, also carries a similar lack of restrictions, which works out quite well for tech companies, and well it should.

Tech companies have paid good money for this legislation, spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in lobbying over the past two years on varying bills with similar functions like the STAR Act, the SMART Jobs Act or the STAPLE Act, as well as extensive lobbying directed at H-1B visas themselves.

Now, this generally is not good advice, but let's engage the counterfactual for a hot second. Imagine all that money spent lobbying on visas instead directed towards training programs in minority communities, toward programming courses in community colleges. It turns out such a program exists. It's called TechSF, but it's funded by a $5 million grant from the Department of Labor. That's right, San Francisco requires assistance from the federal government in order to make the new tech boom work for the whole city. Sounds like socialism to me.

It's important to point out that Silicon Valley is often pointed to as the single hope on which the future of the American economy rests. (It and Wall Street are pretty much responsible for all of the economy's growth in the past thirty years. How's that for a reassuring thought? Frank Sobotka was wise beyond his years). It receives this genuflection despite the fact that the industry cannot uplift millions of Americans out of poverty the way manufacturing jobs did before them, which means that the relatively few jobs that will be created should be held on to. San Francisco tech jobs are at record numbers, but even at record numbers, they still employ less than a quarter of the city's labor force (and even the TechSF initiative only has the goal of employing 300 new people), and more significantly, totals ten thousand fewer than the number of visas that would be opened up/created. Real levels of displacement will occur.

I am aware that by now it is downright quaint to suggest that successful companies find ways to support their surrounding communities in anything greater than token P.R. efforts. Silicon Valley's supposed utopian ethos is really just a protracted form of rationalization. I am aware that not all these skills overlap. Still, it shouldn't be that only those who make it in to highly-selective schools get to learn how to program.

Globalization of the economy really just means the globalization of capital. Labor is still bound by borders, and STEM visas are not steps toward a more liberated future. The people with these visas are not seen as part of labor, but instead of that nebulous class of "human capital," their knowledge a resource to be harvested and harnessed. Most any international student who receives an advanced degree is from a privileged background anyway because of the way international admissions are set up at most colleges regarding financial aid, much unlike the current beneficiaries of the diversity visa program, a discrepancy noted in a Dear Colleague letter from the Congressional Tri-Caucus that helped stall the bill. Additionally, moving competition for this hamlet's worth of jobs to a global scale puts one of the few categories of growing high-paying jobs out of reach for that many more Americans. In this sense, the do-nothing Congress might actually be doing its job.