How H1-B visa cap arguments are like discussing how abolition would affect cotton prices

In the midst of debate over immigration reform, Jordan Weissmann posted The Myth of America’s Tech-Talent Shortage: And what it should mean for immigration reform yesterday at the Atlantic.

So it turns out the United States is not, in fact, the educational wasteland tech industry lobbyists would have you think.

Companies like Microsoft often claim that America is suffering from an economically hobbling shortage of science, math, and computer talent. The solution, they argue, is to let employers fill their hiring gaps by importing tens of thousands of educated guest workers beyond what the law currently allows. Much as farmers want to bring in field workers from Mexico on short-term visas, software developers desperately want to bring in more coders from India.

Weissmann throws out numbers to support his case, ultimately arguing against a proposal to raise the cap on H1-B visas from 65,000 (with another 20,000 set aside for foreign students who earn an advanced degree at U.S. universities) to 110,000 or possibly 180,000.

This is too much, too fast for program that’s such a mixed bag in its present state. Instead of rushing to bulk it up, Congress should just make the system more flexible by leaving the cap at 65,000 and carefully indexing it to health of the job market (the current formula could probably use some tweaking). That would give it room to grow without creating a sudden surge of new guest workers into an economy that may not be primed to handle them.

But to me, this line of argument more than resembles arguing that abolishing slavery would make cotton more expensive. It may be right, it may be wrong, but it really doesn’t matter compared to what is really at stake here.

The Enlightenment helped people to think and learn enough about self-ownership to come to the conclusion that people should not be bought and sold by others without their consent. How long until we realize that human dignity and self-ownership means that no one should be able to come between a willing worker and employer, especially based on something as arbitrary as where they both were born?

One last point. Weissmann finishes off the piece with this:

Our immigration system should be designed to adjust to the needs of the market, but for the time being, we seem to have as many brains as the market needs. Let’s not act like we don’t.

Design is planning, control. It is fundamentally incompatible with flexibility for market adjustments. And yes, let’s not justify expanding caps with arguments over “need.” What an economy needs is something which cannot be accurately measured and even if it could, changes by the minute. Let’s justify eliminating caps based on two things more fundamental and unchanging: the fact that immigration caps skew supply and demand for labor, and the fact that they violate the basic tenet of human dignity that people should be free to move and work where they choose.


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