Recent debates on a general immigration bill in the US have reignited the controversy around hiring immigrant IT workers and displacing local jobs with offshore IT labor.

Proponents of a more open immigration policy invoke concerns about an IT skills shortage. The crux of their position is that they can’t find enough highly skilled IT workers within the US borders, and thus require more liberal access to foreign talent than the current immigration policy allows. Opponents of more open borders point to high unemployment numbers, suggesting that there are thousands of skilled IT workers ready, willing, and able to fill any perceived skills gap. In addition, there’s an undercurrent of everything from patriotism to extensions of the “act locally” movement (this side contends that, if there are unemployed who are willing to learn, the “right” thing to do is hire locally rather than immediately looking farther afield).

Each side accuses the other of bad faith. Immigration opponents suggest that those who desire more open immigration are merely looking for the cheap way out. Hire a foreigner, and you can likely pay him or her less than a US national and ship them back if things don’t work out. Immigration advocates accuse opponents of everything from having grown “soft” and demanding unreasonable pay for out-of-date skills, to outright xenophobia and racism. In short, the immigration in IT debate is fraught with peril. However, like most contentious issues, the opposing sides likely have extensive common ground that can be the start of progress on the issue, rather than focusing on the more invidious aspects of the debate.

The monolithic immigrant

One of the problems with this debate is that immigrants are perceived as a monolithic class of “others” who have come to save our economy or displace swaths of American workers, depending on whose side you’re on. Like US citizens, immigrants have a diverse set of objectives, and regardless of where you stand on immigration policy, attempting to cram them all into two or three narrow classes is a source of significant consternation.

For example, I’d love to see programs that actively encourage foreigners to emigrate to the US to start businesses, and happily provide guest status or even citizenship to recruit those who can demonstrably bring capital, fresh ideas, and companies that create jobs for US citizens. I’ve half-jokingly suggested that instead of launching “rendition” programs that whisk away foreign nations for interrogation, we should be “rendering” the next Sergey Brin directly into Silicon Valley with a government-provided Tesla, with a stack of US IT worker résumés in the passenger seat.

There is also a significant class of immigrants on the high and low ends of the economic scale desiring to be guest workers on a time-limited or a seasonal basis. (As someone who jumped through the bureaucratic hoops to achieve this status in France for a mere six months, I can tell you it is not simple, fun, or inexpensive.) Some of these workers seek jobs that few Americans desire — jobs that should be identified and opened to immigrants through a streamlined and relatively simple process. For those more contentious jobs, IT jobs being most relevant to our discussion, one solution would be to allow streamlined immigration procedures to countries that offer a reciprocal benefit.

Another class of immigrants desires what has brought many others to the US: opportunities for a decent job and an eventual path to citizenship. There is a healthy debate around whether we should open our borders to this class of immigrants, regardless of whether they have minimal skills or are CEO material. It’s obvious that adding more people to the labor pool will increase competition for a limited number of jobs, but there are far more considerations than IT jobs when discussing people that aspire towards joining us as fellow citizens.

The cost of immigration

For all classes of immigrants, it’s time that a concept like “Total Cost of Employment” be introduced to the discussion, so we can understand the true impacts of immigrants on IT jobs. While proponents of immigration don’t like to talk about it, cost is a significant factor in hiring IT workers. I’ve seen foreigners underpaid relative to their peers, and their temporary worker status used to bully them into unfair work situations, where they’re forced to grin and bear unreasonable demands lest their status be revoked. While not quite indentured servitude, these practices are unsavory at best.

If US workers are demonstrably more costly to hire than foreigners, it’s worth having a discussion over how that is rectified in the immediate term, without resorting to the usual bloviating about STEM shortages and “lazy” Americans. Where government regulation has added a significant cost burden to employing Americans, it’s time we took our politicians to task for making their own citizens uncompetitive. If the costs are negligible, then we can focus on how much truth there is to the “skills gap” that’s frequently cited as a driver of foreign hiring.

Protectionism won’t work

With policies that avoid a monolithic discussion around immigrants and an adult discussion about how employment costs factor into the equation, it’s also worth considering whether many of the policies that amount to protectionism will work, and if they’re even worth considering in light of the changing global economy. In the past decade it’s rare to find an IT shop, even one with a half dozen employees, that hasn’t worked with foreign colleagues, contractors, or vendors. You can pick your bromide about globalism, but the fact is that markets for everything from automobiles to IT talent have globalized. You may dispute the merits of globalization, but the cat is unequivocally out of the bag, and there is little chance of putting it back in.

Additionally, the US is fairly unique in that it is a country founded by immigrants, and historically a land of opportunity for people from all over the world. While we’ve had our dark moments in history, we lack the thousands of years of class and racial divides that define other countries, and immigration has been at the core of our nation since its founding. This history allows Americans to bring a unique perspective and style to the workplace, and many of us can quickly adapt to different cultures and colleagues, to the point that it can be flabbergasting to those who are not accustomed to this style. Even if you ignore this history, erecting protectionist walls is a two-way street; this exercise has been highlighted by recent protectionist attempts to move IT out of the US, auspiciously due to spying revelations.

By many benchmarks, the US is still the world’s IT superpower. All parties to the immigration debate, and in many cases the immigrants themselves, want to maintain and further that status, and it’s a status that is anything but guaranteed. Rather than erecting barriers on US borders, or immediately imputing xenophobic motives to those with which we disagree, we should work from the assumption that all parties want to maintain the US’s unique position on the global IT stage, and find common ground from that starting point.

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