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1B visas are the world’s most sought-after work permits. The US issues 85,000 of them each year: 65,000 to foreigners hired abroad by corporations, and 20,000 to foreigners employed by universities and startups.
The latter share is set aside for people with advanced degrees from US universities; they’re known as H-1Bs “with a specialty occupation”. But in June 2014 four IT workers at Southern California Edison (SCE) revealed that it had chosen cheaper foreign workers over them – even though they were all more qualified than their replacements.
In order to hire someone on an H-1B visa you have to prove ‘non-displacement’. You have to show that your hiring will not adversely affect the wages or working conditions of existing workers in your company.
The SCE story showed that, far from proving non-displacement, employers can game the system to replace Americans with cheaper foreigners (see ‘How Edison tried to fool the US’). The purpose of such visas is no longer valid. We need a different visa for firms that want access to top talent from abroad but don’t have any Americans available.
This would allow firms to hire talented foreigners without breaking labour laws or the spirit of the H-1B programme. It might also encourage students in fields like maths and science to stay and work in America after they graduate, instead of returning home. Such a change could be included as part of comprehensive immigration reform that President Barack Obama has promised but which Congress so far shows no sign of delivering.
That wouldn’t stop large corporations doing what Edison did if they really want to gain an advantage over their competitors, but at least it would require them to pay for their lawbreaking.
The story also suggests that there is something wrong with the data on job applicants used by US immigration officials to decide who gets visas (see ‘How many H-1B visa applicants really have a STEM degree?’). It would be far better if the US outsourced decisions about who gets jobs to employers, not government officials.
Some companies use H-1Bs properly; others don’t. We need to get rid of the bad actors by ending the H-1B visa programme for everyone and replacing it with something more tightly controlled. The alternative is that Congress will eventually phase out all employment visas entirely – as Ronald Reagan did in 1986, when he curtailed the special arrangement giving farmworkers permanent residence rights.
This need not be a choice between protecting American jobs and letting in more skilled workers from abroad. Several other countries already favour one over the other, and they still manage to do both.
In Australia, which has no H-1B visa programme, foreigners who are educated at local universities on scholarships can apply for permanent residence after working there for four years – if they have ‘exceptional talent’. The UK also issues five-year work permits through its Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa program; but it sets strict limits on how many of these visas can go to people who aren’t graduates of British or European universities. Ireland issues renewable two-year work permits to anyone with an Irish degree or one from an international university that is a member of the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme.
Some countries, including Denmark, New Zealand and Switzerland, don’t allow firms to import workers at all; they hire them directly. Even in Singapore – which has an open immigration policy but where a third of the population is foreign-born – employers can get work permits only for people who have held important positions or won awards for their exceptional contributions to their industries.
That is what a smart visa system looks like. It protects jobs for citizens without being so restrictive that talent goes elsewhere. Countries with such systems seem to be better off than those that don’t (see Nature 494, 518–522; 2013). But America isn’t stuck with the current mess forever: it can shape its immigration system to fit whatever mix of goals it wants.
This article appeared in print under the headline ‘H-1B visa needs reform’
When this article was first published on 7 May 2013, it inadvertently suggested that there is no scientific or artistic talent in India. We meant to say that Edison does not employ Indian nationals with a science PhD from an American university. We apologise for any offence caused.
Dr. Robert Coleman Richardson – Chemistry, 1937 – for his work in thermionic emission; he discovered free-radical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen which yielded more heat than any other known combination at that time. He showed how this formed water and provided a description of the basic chemical reactions involved. He also demonstrated the nature of catalysis in general by showing that platinum is not consumed during the catalytic process. This theory became widely accepted as definitive, subsequently guiding research efforts throughout much of the 20th century.
Frank Edward Billy Williams – Physics, 1937 – for his work concerning the diffraction of X-rays and electrons by crystals. In his most important experiment he showed that the anomalous scattering of soft X-rays observed from a zinc blende crystal could be explained if the incident beam was deflected away from its normal path by an electric field in the crystal lattice. For this work he developed mathematical expressions now used throughout crystallography which are in accord with experimental results to a high degree of accuracy.
Alexander R. Todd – Chemistry, 1951 – for his development of radiochemical methods for investigating enzyme systems; these included one for isolating and identifying active fractions of liver extracts that control the production and breakdown of glycogen. This method permitted the purification and characterization of hepatic glycogen phosphorylase and other key enzymes in sugar metabolism.
Kenneth Wilson – Physics, 1982 – for his fundamental work on heavy quarks at high energies developed from a theory which united all previous work on this subject into one quantitative physical theory. He first showed how to make calculations using realistic terms derived from simple principles, then carried out these calculations to find an approximate description of the properties of strongly interacting particles including all that is known about their production in high-energy collisions. The results match with great accuracy data derived from experiments performed at bottomless laboratories around the world since 1970; they extend our understanding of the behaviour of extremely energetic strongly interacting systems as far back as 10–23 seconds after the Big Bang.
Herbert Charles Brown – Chemistry, 1985 – for his development of the use of boron-10 enriched in the rare isotope B for studies ranging from fundamental symmetries to biological systems with great precision and accuracy. He developed a new method to produce B–10 enriched in this isotope by an alpha particle bombardment at 20 MV, as well as other related methods now widely used. The applications are diverse; included is a reaction utilizing decays and nuclear excitation that led to Brown’s first measurements on cells (including sea urchin embryos) which provided new insights into cell cycles. For later work he employed gamma rays from radioactive isotopes; then he introduced mass spectrometry techniques employing John David Gurdon – Physiology or Medicine, 2012 – for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent. In the first part of his career, he worked on the developmental biology of frogs and newts. His interest then switched to understanding why cell nuclei from a frog’s mature liver tissue could not be used to clone tadpoles when these nuclei were transplanted into enucleated egg cells from which the DNA had been removed. Gurdon discovered that even though the adult cell nucleus contained all the information needed to specify the development of a normal embryo, its epigenetic state did not allow it to give rise to every type of cell in an embryo. He realized that if this epigenetic.
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