The Demand for Highly-Skilled Foreign Workers Is Undeniable

There is little doubt that highly skilled natives and immigrants have worked together for years to drive innovation in a broad range of fields and to build America’s private sector.

However, despite ample evidence of the complementary nature of the work done by highly skilled foreign-born professionals, the anti-immigration community in the United States is once again attempting to cast doubt on the value of their economic contributions.

One of the latest attacks is a report that calls into question the worth of degrees awarded by colleges and universities virtually anywhere outside of the United States. Yet this attempt by the anti-immigration crowd is marred by the use of an irrelevant data set that in no way measures a foreign-born worker’s professional knowledge or subject matter expertise.

The data set used in the report comes from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)—an English-language test of literacy, numerical proficiency, and computer savvy administered in the United States and 23 other countries. PIAAC is not intended as a measure of specialized knowledge in any particular field of study. Rather, it assesses the practical, day-to-day, “core competencies” of adults in reading, writing, math, and using a computer—in English.

The report finds that, among college-educated natives and immigrants who took the test in the United States in 2012 and 2014, natives significantly outperformed immigrants on all measures. The report also finds that this performance gap persists even for immigrants who have been in the country for more than five years before taking the test and who presumably had time to improve their English-language skills.

While all of this may be true, the report uses the gap in PIAAC scores to support a conclusion that goes far beyond what PIAAC actually measures. Namely, that “policy-makers should therefore be cautious in treating foreign degrees as evidence of ‘high-skill’ immigration.”

Yet PIAAC doesn’t measure the specialized skills of degree holders; it only measures core competencies in the use of the English language, numbers, and computers. It does not assess the engineering expertise of an engineer or the sociological expertise of a sociologist.

If foreign degree holders were as unskilled as the report implies, they would not be in high demand among U.S. employers. But they are. Consider that, each year, the statutory cap on H-1B temporary visas for highly educated foreign professionals is now filled in a matter of days after becoming available.

On average, H-1B workers earn higher wages than comparable U.S.-born workers, even after accounting for differences in age and occupation. This holds true in fields like computer and information technology, engineering, healthcare, and post-secondary education. In other words, employers aren’t saving money by hiring H-1B workers, which suggests that these workers have skill sets which are in high demand.

The economic importance of highly skilled foreign workers—who may have earned degrees both here and abroad—is also apparent from their sheer numbers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). They account for over one-third of all software engineers, more than one-quarter of computer programmers, over one-quarter of electrical engineers, nearly half of medical scientists—and the list goes on. Some of these professionals received their higher education in the United States and some did not. But all are in demand.

In short, the report begs the question of why immigrants with foreign degrees are in such high demand by U.S. employers if they aren’t actually qualified in their fields of study.

This latest anti-immigrant report misuses PIAAC scores in a cynical attempt to denigrate anyone who received a higher education beyond the borders of the United States. But this attempt doesn’t withstand scrutiny because PIAAC scores were never intended to measure specialized bodies of knowledge that highly skilled foreign professionals possess. Knowledge was not invented in the United States, and there are very knowledgeable people who were actually born in other countries.

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USCIS Final Regulation Puts Registration On Hold, Changes Petition Selection Order

On January 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a final regulation that changes the process U.S employers will have to follow in order to hire foreign workers under the “H-1B” program.

The rule applies to H-1B petitions subject to the statutory “cap” of 65,000 H-1B workers per fiscal year.

Employers will be required to register in advance online to be eligible to submit an H-1B petition. However, USCIS suspended this registration requirement to complete testing and “otherwise ensure the system and process are fully operable.” USCIS also plans to engage in outreach and training programs.

USCIS adopted this final regulation at a break-neck speed. On December 3, 2018, the agency asked for public comments. By the end of the 30-day comment period (January 2), USCIS had received 817 comments. The law requires USCIS to consider all comments before issuing a final regulation. Remarkably, USCIS says that it did this in less than 30 days.

Under the new registration system USCIS will provide employers at least 30 days’ advance notice in the Federal Register of when the very first registration period will begin. Employers whose petitions are selected in the lottery process will then have 90 days to file an H-1B petition.

Several commenters on the proposed regulation, including the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy (SBA AO), expressed concern that unscrupulous employers could “flood” the system with bogus registrations.

USCIS claims that safeguards intended to ensure that there is a bona fide job offer will enable it to investigate for a “pattern and practice of abuse” any employers who submit many more registrations than actual petitions.

The immediate change under the regulation is that—effective April 1, 2019—USCIS will reverse the order in which petitions are selected. Employers file petitions in April for H-1B visa numbers that become available in the next fiscal year, which starts on October 1.

Before enacting this rule, USCIS selected petitions for the 20,000 H-1B visa numbers available to workers with a master’s or higher degree from U.S. colleges or universities meeting certain requirements. USCIS then put all unselected petitions into the pool of petitions for the 65,000 H-1B “cap” visa numbers. Under the regulation, petitions for the 65,000 will be selected first.

Some commenters argued that this reversal in the selection process violates the H-1B statute creating the “master’s exemption,” which a regulation cannot do. USCIS disagreed, claiming the law was unclear and its interpretation a reasonable one. It remains to be seen whether anyone will challenge the regulation in federal court on this basis.

USCIS’ explanation for the change is not particularly persuasive, however. USCIS hedges, saying that the re-ordering “will likely increase” the number of H-1B workers who qualify for the “master’s exemption.”

It estimates that the number of “U.S. master’s” petitions selected would increase “by 16 percent (or 5,340 workers) each year.” But USCIS also says it is “not able to quantify the impact” of re-ordering because of the random-selection (lottery) process it uses when demand exceeds supply, and repeats that its purpose in reordering is to “increase the probability” of selecting more “master’s exemption” H‑1B workers.

USCIS admits that “it is unclear which group [“master’s exemption” or foreign advanced degree-holders] has more value to the economy because so many factors need to be considered.” USCIS raises but never answers how foreign degrees compare on wages to U.S. degrees or in what industries workers with bachelor’s degrees have higher wages. Yet, USCIS rejected the SBA AO’s request that USCIS reanalyze the impact on small businesses.

Instead of taking the time to study important questions about the real-world consequences of re-ordering H-1B petition selection, USCIS has “fast-tracked” a change which may be detrimental to small businesses and to certain sectors, such as public-school systems seeking foreign language teachers or health care providers in rural areas who rely on international medical graduates.

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