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the relaxation of H-1B immigration quotas as an "innovation" issue, not the exploitation of a global labor market to depress wages, claims UC Davis computer science professor Norman Matloff. He attempts to present a quantitative case to demonstrate that foreign skilled-worker visas don't go to genius inventors but to average, entry-level employees, in a paper for the Center for Immigration Studies. But his methodology is flawed, and a racial undercurrent bubbles beneath the surface of his argument.

Matloff compared the ratio of the prevailing wage for positions to be filled by H-1B applicants and the wages paid to accepted immigrants, which he calls the "Talent Measure," or TM. For instance, under H-1B rules, applying companies must state a prevailing wage for the position they are trying to fill and prove that they can't find qualified American employees to work for that much. Companies must then pay accepted applicants at least that wage. So by definition, an H-1B immigrant will have a TM of 1.0.

Matloff's thesis rests on the idea that truly innovative workers would have a higher TM, as the competition for their talents should reward them accordingly if they are truly above-average applicants in the talent pool. To bolster his argument, he points to the disparity between the TM scores of Indian (1.01) and Chinese (1.05) applicants to those of Canada (1.12) and Germany (1.14).

Applicants from Asian countries are not necessarily more or less innovative than applicants from North America and Western Europe — but they are often willing to work for less than what Americans would consider for the same position. One of the ways that companies game the system is by stating a lowball prevailing wage, and then when no qualified citizens apply because the salary isn't competitive, it's easier for the company to demonstrate to officials that the market is demanding more foreign tech workers than the local labor pool can supply.

Where the paper veers off into latent racism is in Matloff's presentation of H-1B supporter arguments that suggest the American education system isn't producing enough science and math specialists — what he calls the "Johnnie can't do math" argument.

Even though it was mainly "Johnnie," rather than Arvind or Qing-Ling, who originally developed the computer industry, and even though all major East Asian governments have lamented their educational systems' stifling of creativity, the lobbyists have convinced Congress that the industry needs foreign workers from Asia in order to innovate.

It's hard to take the rest of the paper seriously after that conclusion, which reminds me of anti-immigrant bias from the 19th century nativist movement. Rather than play on stereotypes, why not just state the obvious — the tech industry wants more visas because they pit labor from developing economies against first-world pay scales? That seems more accurate, and less noisome. (Photo from UC Davis)