Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Lou Murray: Repave Route 128 with American jobs
From the 1960s through the 1990s Boston area drivers knew that if you were on Boston’s outer belt of Route 128 you were riding on “America’s Technology Highway.” A sign even told you so. Great middle-class STEM jobs flanked the Route 128 off ramps — it was our Silicon Valley.
This week President Trump signed an executive order in an attempt to restore middle-class job opportunities in the tech sector and add some luster back to Route 128. Contemplating our broken immigration system, candidate Trump was famous for saying he would champion American workers first and help create “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” He certainly did create jobs. In the first three years of his presidency, the U.S. economy roared. Then came the COVID-19 virus and a historic spike in unemployment, now at 13%.
The president’s order froze foreign work visas including, the controversial H-1B visa program, as we recover. The H-1B visa program allows companies, like those still dotting Route 128, to have a special pipeline of low-paid foreign visa workers to take jobs once done by Americans and legal immigrants. Last year in Massachusetts employers asked for 16,579 H-1B visas. Not all these requests were approved. There are an estimated 500,000 H-1B workers throughout the United States, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, including about 20,000-30,000 in Massachusetts jobs.
The Big Tech donor class is predictably irate about President Trump’s move to make them hire locally. But Trump’s move is appropriate. For too long the H-1B program has been rife with cronyism and corruption. Contrary to popular belief, under the rules companies do not have to look for Americans first, prove a labor shortage, or pay them competitive wages.
Every year, most are issued to the same 15 foreign-owned labor outsourcing companies who shop the workers around for entry-level gigs with U.S. companies and even some government agencies, paying below-market wages and creating high tech sweat shops. About 75% of the visas go to male recipients from just two countries (India and China). They are often trained by the Americans they replace. Few H-1B workers will publicly complain for fear they won’t be able to convert their work visa into a permanent green card.
Replacing foreign labor with American workers is now top of the Oval Office’s “action item” list. This executive order is just a start in reforming the visa programs that now work against American citizens. Hopefully, the Optional Training Program, another program that funnels more than 200,000 foreign students into U.S. jobs, is next on the chopping block. OPT offers work permits to foreign students who have completed U.S. degree programs, and subsidizes their employment by waiving payroll taxes for employers. Often these OPT workers are adjusted to H-1B status. These workers are competing for the same jobs as American grads, but they have an edge, because of the payroll tax break.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2003-2017 at least 30,000 jobs went to OPT students or grads in Massachusetts. Those OPT workers came from colleges all over the U.S., but more than one-fourth of those taking jobs in Massachusetts came from just four schools; Northeastern, Boston University, Harvard and MIT.
Tom Homan, the former Obama administration ICE director told me that if there was one immigration program sorely in need of reform to help Americans it would be OPT. “The government has never had the resources to oversee the program properly. The system is full of fraud, and it also presents some national security vulnerabilities. The entire system needs to be revamped to ensure integrity,” he said.
With so many jobs at stake in this time of crisis, Homan is right. While many of the Massachusetts OPT visa holders were in technical degree programs like computer science and engineering, other majors listed in the OPT database included Business Administration and Management, Early Childhood Education, Textile Science, Liberal Arts, General Studies, and even Travel & Exploration.
As President Trump battles to create an immigration policy that puts American workers first, let’s applaud changes to H-1B and hope for an end or a suspension of OPT. Route 128 may no longer be “America’s Technology Highway,” but there are many great American-born STEM students and entrepreneurs who would like the chance to repave all six lanes in gold.
Louis L. Murray is the co-founder of SAFE-Bostonians Against Sanctuary Cities, and chairman of the Ward 20 Republican Committee in Boston.