June 16, 2017

Reminder: The H-1B Visa is Not Exclusively a “Tech Visa”

News outlets all too often give the misleading impression that H-1Bs are exclusively used to fill computer-related positions. Politico’s big scoop last week on plans to cut back the H-1B referred to it as the “high-tech visa,” as if that were its name. In reality, the H-1B is a high-skilled visa for workers in any industry—both inside and outside the IT sector.

While many H-1B holders are in the tech industry, many are not. Thousands are employed by universities, financial institutions, and hospitals. Many H-1B holders are indeed computer programmers; however, many others are engineers, financial analysts, research analysts, doctors, statisticians, scientists, lawyers, and professors.


Source: USCIS

To be clear, most H-1Bs do go to foreign workers in computer-related occupations. But this was not the case prior to 2013, and since then, the number has been increasing.


Source: USCIS

So what if people automatically think “computer programmer” or “high-tech” when they hear about the H-1B?

Treating the H-1B only as a computer programmer visa opens the door to simplified and misleading narratives about the H-1B. In addition to misrepresenting a third of H-1B holders, this impression may reinforce misleading narratives concerning the outsourcing of American IT workers.

These negative associations—that computer workers specifically are not skilled, that they aren’t well-paid, or that they aren’t good for Americans—are not justified.

Rutgers Professor Jennifer Hunt examined these claims directly in her 2013 study. She explained that she chose to “focus on computer workers because they are at the center of claims that immigrants are not particularly skilled.” She found that “immigrant computer workers earn considerably more [17.4%] than natives…and the immigrant advantage is 6.4% among workers with computer bachelor’s degrees.”

In a review of the research on H-1Bs, Harvard Professor William R. Kerr wrote that “across the studies” he found that high-skilled immigration is “associated with higher levels of innovation for the United States and that the short-run consequences for natives are minimal.”

Magnus Lofstrom and Joseph Hayes took on the same myths surrounding H-1Bs in their IZA paper, concluding that they “fail to find support for the notion that H-1Bs are paid less than observationally similar US born workers; in fact, they appear to have higher earnings in some key STEM occupations, including information technology.” In other words, contrary to popular belief, American workers and H-1B holders have comparable incomes.

The all-too-common negative associations with foreign tech workers are especially unfortunate because the prospect of more foreign computer scientists should be a particularly exciting one. Even if foreign tech workers have some effect on the incomes of American-born computer scientists—and it is not clear that they do—they raise the incomes of average Americans by lowering prices and increasing output from the IT sector, according to a study in High-Skilled Migration to the United States and its Economic Consequences. In fact, the biggest gains, according to that study, go to the lower end of the income distribution: to Americans without college degrees.

The effects of H-1B computer workers in the long-term are cause for even greater optimism because of their role in innovation. As a 2015 IMF report on productivity trends explained, IT “has a broad-based effect on aggregate [total factor productivity (TFP)] through its role as a general-purpose technology that fosters complementary innovations.” Indeed, an NBER working paper concludes that H-1B admissions “has played a significant role in US innovation.” H-1B holders are not just performing jobs that businesses are having a hard time fillingthey are actively making the economy more productive and more dynamic.

Popular perception is already unjustifiably biased against foreign computer workers. Oversimplified or misleading reporting should not compound the error by convincing the public that the H-1B exclusively brings in those maligned workers.