How To Fix Tech’s H-1B Problem

I’m a Canadian who has spent a sizable fraction of his adult life working in the USA, so immigration, especially as it relates to the tech industry, is a pretty personal subject. I was at a Waterloo Engineering alumnus event in San Francisco this week (it turns out there are almost 2,000 of us in the Bay Area) and, inevitably, the arc of every conversation bent towards immigration, and how Kafkaesque it can be, even for us fortunate Canadians.

So much worse, then, for those unfortunates who have to rely on the infamous H-1B visa. Even we lucky TN-1 types are tethered to our employer, unable to change jobs … say, to join, or found, new startups. I happen to be very happy with my employers, but how many startups go unfounded, how many careers stagnate, because those same talented people who flock to the Valley–and the tech industry writ large–find themselves forced to languish in the the same jobs that brought them, because of the accident of their faraway births?

Even those people have to count themselves lucky — because demand for the 65,000 H-1Bs available annually so outstrips supply that, last year, the window to file for them opened on April 1st … and slammed shut only five days, and 172,500 applications, later.

So how were the lucky winners selected? By the quality of the employers? By the quality of the individuals? Of course not. By lottery. I kid you not.

Maybe this would be reasonable if all H-1B jobs were roughly equivalent. The problem is, as I’ve written before, they’re anything but. Let’s compare, say, Facebook and Google with those well-known body shops Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant Technology Solutions. Click on the links in the previous sentence to see their H-1B stats for last year. See anything that jumps out at you?

That’s right. Facebook and Google brought in 900 and 2,800 H-1B employees, respectively, with salaries of $140,000 and $127,000. Cognizant? 3,300 at $72,000. Tata? A whopping 16,435 for a (relatively) paltry $70,000 – literally less than half what Facebook paid.

I personally think Congress (and Canada’s Parliament, and the UK’s Parliament, etc etc etc) should wave their collective legal wands and allow anyone with an accredited STEM degree to come build their future in the land of their choice, and change jobs as and when they like, rather than giving their corporate masters absolute power over their future(s).

But in the absence of that panacea, if you’re going to have a limit on who can come, shouldn’t the powers that be at least try to select the most valuable people? As chosen by the free market they purport to admire? And/or, if you wanted to especially support startups, one could easily inversely weight salaries by the size of the employers in question.

This is hardly a new idea. (It was nice to see the New York Times finally taking notice of it late last year.) It would be a trivial regulatory change. But it would be enormously beneficial for companies who are actually trying to do great things; it would obviously be better for the employees in question; and it would be vastly more politically palatable, which in turn would be better for the “freedom of motion of educated labor” long game. Everybody wins. So why aren’t we doing it?