Three Bright Spots in an Otherwise Dull Senate Hearing

There were three bright spots in an otherwise cut-and-dry immigration policy hearing chaired by Senator Chuck Schumer (D - NY) this morning.

Schumer, chair of the Senate’s Immigration Subcommittee, is an old hand at tilting hearings toward the open borders types, people who argue that more skilled alien workers are needed by corporations, and that refugees are good for the local economy. Predictably, seven of the eight witnesses this morning took one of those approaches.

One bright spot was a brisk dialogue between the very conservative, very pro-business Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Brad Smith, General Counsel to Microsoft. Smith had made the usual corporate pitch that all the existing ways to bring foreign talent to America were inadequate to meet industry’s needs, and thus new ways had to be found to admit still more foreign talent.

Sessions then asked him, in effect, “why not adopt the Canadian approach and its points system?” That system, the senator said, gives points to potential incoming immigrants on the basis of “skills, education, languages, and youth.”

Sessions said that the system could be adjusted to meet the needs of industry.

No, said Smith, we do not want government making those decisions; it should be the individual employers.

Sessions -- not exactly a big government person -- told him cheerfully “I am sure you would like to make those decisions, but they should be made by government, to benefit all of us.”

It was nice to see a big business lobbyist rebuffed by a staunch conservative.

Another bright spot, at least for the cognescenti, was a statistic dropped into the debate about the current use of recent foreign students by industry, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) aspect of the F-1 foreign student program. This is the program that lets people who used to be foreign students work for 12 to 29 months after graduation without even the limited protections of the H-1B program, and allows them and their employers to avoid paying both FICA and Medicare taxes, giving the foreign student a remarkable advantage over a resident student with the same resume. (The payroll tax saving can be as much as $10,000 for the foreign worker, and, as much again for his employer.)

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, without emphasis, that there were 95,259 such slots during FY 2010 -- a statistic that had not previously been available, but one he had evidently pried out of DHS. He did not point out, as he could have done, that such a loophole was just the sort of thing that is driving the budget out of balance, and making it still harder for recent resident college grads to get high-tech jobs. I had used a lower figure, about 70,000, in a blog on this subject last year; at the time I thought the action was depriving the Social Security Trust Fund of about $1 billion a year; I underestimated the cost of the OPT program.

Since FY 2010 ended, the Obama Administration has expanded the OPT loophole still further, so the Social Security losses are still greater.

The third bright spot was the testimony of the only non- open borders person at the witness table, Professor Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

He made two particularly good points: he agreed with the general sentiment at the table that we prosper as a nation when market forces prevail, and then pointed out that the reason for the alleged high-tech skills shortage among Americans related to the intervention of migration programs that had forced wages down in this part of the economy. He said that in a similar field, where there had been no comparable intervention, that of petroleum engineers, that the shortage of some years ago was solved the old-fashioned way -- wages rose, so more people began studying in that field, and the job vacancies were soon filled.

He also said that he had conferred with the new British government unit that regulates the arrival of alien high-tech workers in that country. He said that they were “flabbergasted” when he told them that American industry had access to the L-1 (multinational corporation executive) program that has no wage standards at all. The Brits simply could not understand that.

While most of the hearing dealt with alien high-tech workers, the last quarter of it featured testimony by three mayors of East Coast municipalities, saying how much low-skilled immigrant workers meant to their local economies. Two were from small Rust Belt cities in the North East, and the third was from a tiny town in an agricultural part of Georgia.