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Science Careers Blog

February 5, 2013

A "Worrying" Witness at Congressional Immigration Hearing?

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on immigration reform on 5 February, covering a number of topics, including, of course, high-skill workers. For those familiar with such Kabukis, there were no surprises, at least in the hearing room. 

The morning did bring one amazement, however: an article on the usually rational website Talking Points Memo. It characterized Michael Teitelbaum, a longtime official of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Wertheim Fellow at Harvard University, as a "GOP appointee to the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform" and "a skeptic on the need for increased legal immigration, even in the case of top flight scientists and engineers both Republicans and Democrats believe need a smoother path to U.S. citizenship."

Regular readers of Science Careers of course know that Teitelbaum, far from being a political operative or an intellectual lightweight, is in fact a distinguished demographer and for decades one of the most respected and astute scholars of the scientific labor market. He has frequently, in a wide variety of prestigious scholarly and Congressional venues, explained the near-unanimous conclusion by the leading experts on the scientific labor market that there is no shortage--and indeed a surplus--of scientifically and technically trained people in the United States.

His inclusion on the witness list "raises alarm among immigration reform advocates," says the headline of the article. And why should testimony by an internationally recognized expert on a complex subject "worry" proponents of reform? Because, the article continues, "more liberal immigration policies for scientists and engineers is [sic] politically significant because it brings business and industry, especially high tech industries, into the sometimes-fragile coalition of immigration reform advocates." So, the desire to push for a particular legislative outcome makes attention to the actual facts by a notable authority a "worrying" development.

The hearing itself unfolded much as one would have expected. Several politicians reiterated the pressing need to admit more foreign scientists and engineers because of employers' purported difficulty finding qualified employees. 

Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University, a regular at such confabs, extolled the tremendous advantages of high technology and innovation and pushed for liberalization of H-1B and green card regulations in order to encourage further innovation and job creation. He did not argue for a shortage, stating, rather cryptically, that "we debate whether there are shortages of engineers or a glut." He did, however, imply--without offering any actual evidence--that the advances he conjured in his remarks require the presence of highly skilled immigrants to come to fruition.

Puneet Arora, representing Immigration Voice, an organization of foreign-born scientists and engineers in the United States, described the very real frustrations and travails of skilled workers snarled in the immensely long queues for permanent residency, and asked for improvements to the process.

And Teitelbaum, as feared, had this to say in his prepared testimony (which he did not have time to read aloud to the committee) about the "'shortages' in the STEM workforce": "Since the time of the Commission there have been claims about general 'shortages' of scientists and engineers. There has also been a lot of research completed on this topic by independent groups such as the RAND Corporation, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, and by a growing number of respected university researchers. Almost all have concluded that the evidence does not support claims of generalized shortages of STEM workers in the US workforce. Yet I would add that shortages can and do appear in some particular STEM fields, at particular times and in particular places. To me this means that proposals to expand the number of visas for STEM should focus carefully and flexibly on those fields that can be shown to be experiencing excess demand relative to supply in the U.S. labor market." He also described the United Kingdom's Migration Advisory Committee, which provides the government "independent and objective assessment of claims about labor shortages" on which to base decisions about immigration.

If Teitelbaum's presence at the hearing does, in fact, imply that some House members are dubious of the claim that the nation is experiencing a shortage of scientists and engineers, perhaps there is hope that whatever immigration reform law finally emerges may reflect the reality of the situation (like for example, record unemployment among chemists). But, as Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) warned in his opening remarks, much work lies ahead before the "massive undertaking" of rewriting the nation's immigration laws can be finished. Stay tuned for further developments.
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