Americans have often found themselves caught up in panics about immigration, like that now driving the campaign to build a wall between us and our third largest trading partner—when more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than arriving. Then we have the talk of banning an entire world religion, though, of course, we’ve seen this before, lest we forget that the Klan resurged in large part as an anti-Catholic group. All of this misinformation, mistrust, and outright contempt comes at a high cost, including that of any real understanding of how immigration works, and why it works, no matter how vehemently certain organizations fight against it.
The fact is that the U.S. might be a dynamo for capital but not when it comes to what economists crudely call “human capital.” The point applies not only to immigrant workers who do jobs Americans won’t, but also those who do jobs Americans can’t, because, as physicist Michio Kaku argues above, “the United States has the worst educational system known to science.” Were it solely up to U.S. graduates, the scientific establishment and tech economy would collapse, he says, “forget about Google, forget about Silicon Valley. There would be no Silicon Valley.” Instead, U.S. science and tech thrive because of immigrants who come on H-1B visas, “America’s secret weapon… the genius visa.”
Kaku goes on to press his case with daunting statistics about the number of foreign-born Ph.D. graduates, though he doesn’t say that all of those grads have H-1Bs. In fact, his position is a highly controversial one. Reliable studies show that many companies abuse the specialized work visa to outsource jobs Americans are fully qualified to do, and to create a class of immigrant workers who earn less than their U.S. counterparts and work under a modified form of indentured servitude. The visa is, after all, “a non-immigrant visa,” points out one critic, “and so has nothing at all to do with staying in the USA, becoming a citizen, or starting a business.” It is, more or less, a guest worker program.
Kaku’s tone can also seem grating, a smarmy reminder of what David H. Freedman calls in The Atlantic “open season on the nonsmart.” Calling American grads “stupid” will not likely endear many of them to his position. Nonetheless, when it comes to science education, it’s hard to argue with his assessments, and with his case for allowing the best minds in the world to come work for American companies (under more equitable conditions). In the Big Think video above, Kaku again presses his argument for the H-1B as instrumental to a “brain drain” into the United States, feeding its science and tech industries with fresh minds and fresh ideas constantly. His ideas about meritocracy may seem blithe, especially given the material advantages so many guest workers already have before arriving in the States. But in purely descriptive terms, the best U.S. graduates just simply cannot compete with many of their foreign-born colleagues.
Here Kaku’s argument takes a turn in both these videos and shows how the “secret weapon” is one we’ve pointed at ourselves. We can’t continue to depend on “geniuses” from other countries, he says, to prop up our science and technology sectors, especially since the brain drains back out, with H1-B visa holders frequently leaving, given their temporary status, and establishing companies in their home countries. “In reality,” wrote Mother Jones in 2013, “most of today’s H-1B workers don’t stick around to become the next Albert Einstein or Sergey Brin.” That year, “the top 10 users of H-1B visas… were all offshore outsourcing firms… that hired nearly half nearly half of H1-B workers.” As one expert explained, “The H-1B worker learns the job and then rotates back to the home country and takes the work with him.”
It’s likely large numbers of those workers feel less and less welcome in the U.S. But it’s also true, as Kaku says, that Americans continue to fall far behind in math and science. There may indeed be few Americans who can fill many of those jobs or continue to push technological innovation forward in the U.S.