H-1B visas, a much-maligned engine of growth

WASHINGTON, D.C — The ability of the U.S. to maintain its competitive edge could be compromised by anti-immigration policies and the assault on the H-1B visa program by Congress and the Trump administration, according to the coauthor of a new study on the controversial visas’ impact.

Gaurav Khanna said the report has found the H-1B program to be a net positive for the U.S. economy and has been catalytic to the tech boom in India since Y2K. He said a toxic political environment exists in the U.S., along with a misplaced paranoia of American workers being replaced, and blames that for distorting the utility of the H-1B program – with dire potential consequences. “My fear is that it will scare off the global talent,” he said, and added, “Immigrants in general would think that it will be so much tougher to come to the U.S.”

“It will become difficult for tech firms to recruit the best and brightest minds,” he said. Instead of espousing anti-immigrant and anti-H-1B rhetoric, he said, the government should “be backing the tech firms to attract the brightest minds. Policies should be attracting this kind of global talent and doesn’t seem to be happening right now. The conversation has been pretty narrow in some ways.” He said despite claims to the contrary, there is no tangible proof that H-1B workers take jobs away from American workers and dissipate wages.

Khanna said his more than three years of research into the H-1B program — well before the presidential campaign that brought Donald Trump to power — had conclusively found that the H-1B program is a net positive for the U.S. and Indian economies. “This is something we’ve been looking at before this was even an election issue,” he said. “We’ve been interested in this for many years now.”

He said the research was done, as much as possible, without paying too much heed to “political back-and-forth.” He said: “We are just trying to do academic research. But, essentially, what we are trying to stress and one thing that people haven’t been discussing so much, is the great productivity gains from a tech boom.”

Khanna, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Global Development, is joining the University of California, San Diego as an assistant professor of economics. He told India Abroad that America’s ability to maintain its competitive edge would take a serious hit from present efforts by the Trump administration and Congress. “The H-1B program has in some ways, greatly facilitated the tech boom both in India and the U.S.,” he said, “and because of the nature of computer science jobs, computer scientists are essentially innovator. “When there is an increase in IT output, that really affects the entire economy as a whole, and that’s because you and I use IT in our lives everyday as consumers, but also other companies are using IT in their production process —banks are using software, manufacturing firms are using software.” Productivity has gained, he said, thanks to IT expansion.

The study has its origins in H-1B research Khanna was undertaking for a few years as a PhD student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “It’s always been something I’ve always been interested in –the personal stories of my friends while I was in school in India where they would talk about why they needed to get an engineering degree,” he said. “They would talk about how they might get this great job in Silicon Valley and even though they were competing with a lot of people, the prospect of getting that great job in Silicon Valley encouraged a lot of them to try out for IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] exams and get an engineering degree.”

Khanna said he has observed the trend too in which many longtime IIT entrepreneurs and engineers who would have come to the U.S. using H-1B visas are now getting good-paying jobs in India where there is a real demand. He noted as well that some of the leading IT heavyweights like Microsoft have incubators in India offering job opportunities.

“This is definitely a part of what’s going on right now,” he said. “Basically what our research was trying to stress is that the kinds of opportunities available in India are great only because of the Indian tech boom that happened in the late 1990s and that tech boom only could have happened because of the H-1B program. “If there had been no H-1B program, if there was no knowledge transfer, then the tech boom wouldn’t have happened in the first place and these knowledge incubators, the Microsoft and Accenture and all these other companies that really have a big presence in India, paying really good wages for students coming out of IIT’s — the really well set up IT infrastructure —would not have happened if not for the H-1B program.”

The IT boom didn’t happen like this elsewhere, he said, because the H-1B migration led the India IT sector to take off on more confident footing.

“When Y2K happened, a lot of coding was outsourced to India. It was low-level coding essentially — changing some lines of coding — but it had to be done on a massive scale,” he said. “And, after Y2K, the U.S. companies essentially said, ‘Yes, these Indian coders can really do this and we have so many other tasks that we can get workers in India to do.”

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