A Hidden Underclass Created by the Lack of STEM Immigration Reform




    While international news has been bombarded by reports of Central American children illegally crossing into the US and American news focuses on the crisis of South American laborers flooding across the Mexican border daily, the issue of STEM immigration (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) often gets swept aside.

    This is an issue that I have a personal vested interest in since I am still dealing with the immigration hurdle myself. Trawling through the internet, I found a variety of opinions, anecdotes and horror stories expressed by those in similar situations as me (e.g. here and here), the most outstanding of which is presented by satirist John Oliver of Last Week Today, formerly of the Daily Show:



    Like John Oliver, I too immigrated from the UK. However unlike him, I was born in mainland China. Because of the archaic rules of USCIS, those who apply for a green card on an over subscribed employment base or family sponsorship base face up to 9 years if born in China and India, up to 20 years if born in Mexico and up to 10 years if born in the Philippines. Of course accomplished scholars with outstanding papers, awards, citations and contributions to the country apply for the green card through the prized "EB1" Extraordinary Ability or Outstanding Researcher category. Some are also lucky enough to get their university or company to sponsor their EB1 without needing too many outstanding credentials. Some get married to a citizen (perhaps even illegally!) to obtain the fast-track green card application. However, in the overpopulated world of the academic life sciences, crowded with foreign postdocs such as myself, the chances of acquiring a fast-track green card application have dwindled dramatically in recent years, not helped by post-9/11 policies. So many Chinese and Indian scientists are striving for the same high-tier publications in a badly funded system that the likelihood of achieving "National recognition" through a few good papers has sometimes become an unthinkable dream.

    The US government passed a reform bill last year to enable graduates holding F1 visas with STEM degrees to automatically qualify for a green card. This year the Senate attempted to pass another reform bill to add workers employed on H1B visas in STEM fields to this type of faster-paced application. This came as industry leaders, science Nobel Laureates and the White House all acknowledge that skilled immigrants make up the better part of the most competitive companies and the most notable innovators in the US today.



    They also agree the brain drain of the best foreign graduate students, due to a lack of available employment visas, will be damaging the the US economy. Conservatives may argue that foreign workers, whether skilled or unskilled, tend to take over the jobs traditionally available to Americans, damaging the job market. This a false cry of indignity that is echoed all over the world by anti-immigration parties and right wing groups.


      The Devious Tactic of Delaying Reform


    What has not been said in the immigration debate is that the lack of H1B employment visas and the dearth of visa numbers for green card applicants born in India and China creates a pool of slave labor. The unskilled South Americans who come illegally to the US may pick cherries and mow lawns for a below-average salary. But the skilled foreign scientists who come to the US on H1B visas are also on a very low wage, susceptible to exploitation in a laboratory or behind a desk, with the credits of their work usurped by unscrupulous bosses - I hasten to add that luckily, this has not been my experience! I have seen foreign scientists come to the US and made to work seven days a week with no extra pay and very little result. They are given little hope of finding a job afterwards so are forced to return back to their country after their fellowships ended. This often happens against their will and because they do not dare to protest in light of their visa circumstances.



    Pharmaceutical and biotech jobs, particularly in the life sciences, have traditionally been the go-to career for scientists unable to stay in academia. Such jobs may once have been readily available to US born workers graduating straight out of college. But companies rarely sponsor foreign workers on an H1B visa. Such industrial H1B visas tend to be capped every year. On top of this, perhaps it makes "economic" sense for an American company not to bother with paying a high salary and sponsoring a visa for a foreign migrant who lacks the adequate language and cultural skills to fit the company culture. Or perhaps their branches are being relocated to China and India anyway, which would explain the climate of massive lay-offs. But this is not just a problem endemic to industry.

    Certain benefits of higher education, available to those born in America, such as discounted tuition fees for long-term residents and student loans, are also barred from foreign workers, regardless of how long they have lived in that city. A basic undergraduate course unit at my local community college, which would cost $150 for a resident, would cost me over a thousand dollars right now. Discounts only tend to be available if one can prove extraordinary hardship and the threat of persecution from their home country. In light of the fact that more advanced college degrees in the US are a ticket to upward mobility, the lack of such opportunities for skilled foreign workers underscores another fundamental problem with capping immigration numbers.

    So it is the immigrant class who do the grunt work of manual labor, tough lab work or badly paid technical jobs, while citizens can enjoy the fruits of higher salaries and more choices. Hence the tactic of the government slowing down, rejecting or reversing immigration reform plays to their advantage since there is a market for cheap immigrants to enter the country to do work that many people no longer wish to do. Or maybe this is just a gauntlet set up by legislators to test one's perseverance in attaining an American Dream.

    I say all of this with the utmost respect to my American colleagues and friends who worked hard all their lives but have now become unemployed, underemployed and cannot find a job. Admittedly, life is hard for everyone in the modern day globalized economy. Furthermore, not everyone is fortunate enough to earn a STEM PhD degree and not everyone should aspire just to work in these fields. However, considering the fact that foreign skilled workers have founded 40% of all the Fortune 500 companies in the US and continuously contribute to the US GDP every year, there really needs to be more urgency in immigration reform.