Tag Archives: fwd.us

High-skilled hacks: why the US immigration system needs serious refactoring

This post is the introduction to the series of “high-skilled hacks” posts, focused on immigration to the United States. The series explores various workarounds and caveats to immigration law that high-skilled immigrantworkers and their employers have discovered and engineered in order to further their own interests, at the expense of the original intent of immigration law. Through the series, I try to argue that, although these hacks are an improvement over an alternative where only the basic immigration system existed, freer migration for all would be simpler, fairer, more efficient, and more just.

Recently, I posted the following puzzle to the Open Borders Action Group:

In a comment on an OBAG post, Alex says of liberalizing high-skilled immigration to the United States: “Most folks in the policy debate want those reforms or something similar to them. They haven’t happened because high tech reform is intentionally bundled with the rest of the less popular elements of the comprehensive immigration reform package to “sweeten” the whole deal. If high-skilled reform becomes law separately, the rest of the portions of immigration reform become less likely to pass. Those who want the less popular items hold enough power to block individual pieces of the reform from becoming law on their own.

That’s the dominant theory that has failed to produce immigration reform just about every year since 2002.”

Does this accord with your impressions? Do you think people calculated correctly? As an open borders advocate, would you try to reduce the chances of a standalone high-skilled immigration passing in the hope that it could later be added to other, more comprehensive, bills, to sweeten the deal and increase the probability of their passage?

The comments were generally supportive of Alex’s view. I’ll have more to say this later (but check out the comments in the meantime) but in this post I want to consider an auxiliary puzzle: why haven’t high-skilled workers (in the technology sector, academia, and elsewhere), a generally influential population segment where even the natives who “compete” with the migrants tend to be more favorable to migration of their competitors than the general population, been more successful at getting their way? The answer is that they have been able to get their way, but in hackish fashion. They’ve basically taken an immigration system that isn’t designed to be helpful to them at all and made a bunch of changes to it here and there that somewhat approximate a migration regime that is, in practice, a lot more liberal than it looks on paper. Indeed, even a lot of criticism of existing skilled migration regimes generally accepts the broad premises of the status quo and only argues for special treatment of their favored groups. An example of this sort is Paul Graham’s recent article, that I recently critiqued. Yet another example may be high-skilled migration proponent Vivek Wadhwa, whose somewhat confused position at the Intelligence Squared Debate was critiqued by my co-blogger John. Relatedly, the advocacy efforts of FWD.us appear to have been at least partly responsible for the inclusion of H-1B liberalization suggestions in Obama’s November 2014 immigration executive action announcement.

The clever workarounds come at a price. The price is simplicity and fairness. Despite that, the system, with all its hacks, is probably vastly better for the high-skilled workers, the United States, and the world at large (through greater economic growth and more innovation), than the system as originally intended and designed.

Why have high-skilled immigrant workers and the groups that lobby for them been able to engineer so many hacks, and yet not fundamentally changed the system? To understand this, we need to understand the division of labor between different branches of government with respect to immigration law. Some types of changes to immigration law (the creation of new visa categories or the expansion or elimination of quotas for some capped visa categories) require legislative action by the US Congress. Any changes that need explicit legislative action are subject to legislative gridlock for the reasons Alex highlighted. On the other hand, there are other changes, including changes to the scope and time limits of existing visas, as well as enforcement details and the types of evidence that need to be provided, that are a matter of executive discretion. Some of these are decided at the very top, by the US President, but others can be decided at lower levels, by the DHS branches (USCIS, CBP, and ICE) working in conjunction. It is changes of the latter sort where interest groups are best able to move fast. For instance, as I’ll describe in my forthcoming post on Optional Practical Training, Bill Gates’ Congressional testimony suggesting that the length of the Optional Practical Training period be extended led directly to the creation of the OPT STEM extension through direct action at the executive level without the need for new legislation. As Gates himself observed:

This only requires action by the Executive Branch, and Congress and this Committee should strongly urge the Department of Homeland Security to take such action immediately.

In a similar vein, co-blogger Michelangelo has proposed that Obama work to expand the scope of NAFTA’s labor provisions (the TN visa):

Expansion of the TN status should be an attractive route and it is surprising that both successive Presidents and open border advocates have ignored it. The TN status is already part of the US code (Title 8 Section 214.6) and no further enabling legislation from Congress would be necessary. The President’s administration would not be creating a new status using executive order, it would merely be easing the administration process of a well established aspect of US immigration law.

Guest blogger Fabio Rojas has noted that there are many “publics” on any given issue, and on the issue of immigration, immigration lawyers and government agents form a public that is easier to influence at the margin than the general public. Fabio was focused on courts, but the same point applies to enforcement agencies:

This is why open borders advocates should directly target the legal public because of its special position in society. Courts are responsible for enforcing and interpreting the law. Contrary to popular opinion, judges do not apply the law in the same way that a baseball umpire calls “balls and strikes.” Instead, judges are influenced by what they learned in law school, in their time as practicing attorneys, and by political and social trends. That is why the open borders movement should target the legal public. If we can introduce a legal theory that supports open borders, then it will be easier for courts to uphold open borders policy and side with immigrants.

The “hacks” to expand the scope of immigration law are not limited to high-skilled workers. Similar hacks can be found in family immigration law, humanitarian statuses, low-skilled temporary work, and the regularization of people who entered unlawfully. But this series will focus on high-skilled hacks, which have the most “above-board” legal status, partly because of the greater political influence of high-skilled workers and partly because high-skilled immigration meets with less nativist opposition.

On this blog, we’ve been somewhat critical of the “high-skill only” focus of some immigration reform efforts (see for instance Nathan’s post). We’ve also been critical of high-skill-focused groups such as FWD.us. I think our criticism is generally valid. But I recently had a chance to look at the FWD.us video section, and I was somewhat favorably impressed at their use of high-skilled immigration as a way to open a conversation on migration policy. They don’t go as far as I’d like, but they offer important information and provoke interesting thoughts. In this series, I hope to go further and deeper, helping people both understand the current status of immigration law and the direction in which it should be changed.

PS: For those curious about the terminology in the title, code refactoring is a common practice in software engineering. A piece of software originally designed for a particular context, that gets successively rewritten to handle a number of special cases, can get very messy over time. Occasional refactoring to clean up the code can be helpful. The FWD.us homepage had a quote to a similar effect. As John Lee pointed out in a comment on the OBAG post, the “outdated” message has been used for quite a while, at least since the time of Harry Truman. My focus here, though, is not so much the “outdated” message as the “messy” message. There’s a lot of copy-and-paste code and clever workarounds in immigration law. Let’s think of a simpler way of accomplishing morally and practically appropriate goals: radically freeing migration.

Paul Graham on US immigration policy and high-tech programmers

I’m a great fan of Paul Graham, essayist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of startup accelerator Y Combinator (along with his wife Jessica Livingston, whom I also admire greatly). Through Y Combinator, Graham has changed the startup and tech company landscape and profoundly affected the world. (Some Y Combinator-funded companies you’ve probably heard of are Reddit, Airbnb, Dropbox, Scribd, Disqus, and Stripe). Graham also started Hacker News, a Reddit-of-sorts for the programmer/startup crowd. In the world of letters, Graham is better known for his long-form essays that include incisive social commentary. If you haven’t yet read his pieces, I encourage you to check them all out (I particularly like this one, that might be somewhat relevant here). He’s done more for the world than most people, including me, could dream of. And he knows a lot more about how the world works than I do.

Recently, while investigating the reasons for a surge of traffic to the site from Hacker News, I came across Paul Graham’s essay Let the Other 95% of Great Programmers In. Though I was in broad agreement with Graham’s premises and conclusions (which broadly agree with the innovation case for open borders), I found some of the argumentation weak. In many ways, I thought that Graham both overstated and understated his case. He conceded too much to citizenism and to flawed framings of the issue, even if he didn’t directly endorse them.

A warning at the outset: it is quite possible that I am mistaken. In fact, given Graham’s substantially greater knowledge of the issues, your Bayesian prior, as you start reading this, should be that I am mistaken and Graham is right. But also consider another possibility. As Graham himself said, there are some things he can’t say. Graham is a contributor to high-tech immigration advocacy group FWD.us (see Nathan’s post on them). In that capacity as well as in his capacity as Y Combinator partner, he is keen to see high-tech immigration reform actually achieved. Even if he is broadly sympathetic to freer migration for all, coming out in favor of that might be a risk he’s not willing to take if it jeopardizes high-tech reform (relatedly, see my post on the dearth of moderates’ critiques of open borders). Thus, it could well be that my criticisms of Graham are epistemically correct but that his apparent results are a reflection of political savvy rather than intellectual sloppiness.

Paul Graham and others at FWD.us event
Paul Graham, Congressman Mike Honda, and founders of some leading Y Combinator-funded companies at a FWD.us event on high-skilled immigration to the United States. Source: FWD.us

Here’s my “list of N things” of criticisms, followed by elaboration of each:

  1. The 95% statistic is a gross exaggeration: Graham’s framing, and his choice of title, radically overstate his case. His actual text, if read carefully, is less misleading.
  2. Graham overstates the need for reform specifically targeted at exceptional workers: He overstates the case for letting them in, and the difficulties they face.
  3. Graham understates and undermines the importance of letting in the merely competent: The merely competent include many who may go on to become exceptional. They support the exceptional through division of labor and comparative advantage. And their children may go on to become exceptional.
  4. Graham concedes too much to the flawed jobs-and-wages-focused economic framework: He tacitly endorses the view that it’s somehow bad for companies to let in workers for the purpose of cutting costs. But cutting costs (holding the quality of service constant) is critical to economic and social efficiency.
  5. Graham couches things too much in the language of American competitiveness: He is right that there is a chance that the global hub could move out of Silicon Valley due to poor policy choices (including immigration policy and local land use policy). But the sad thing about this cost isn’t so much that America loses out, it’s the huge social and global costs of the transition.

Continue reading Paul Graham on US immigration policy and high-tech programmers

Mark Zuckerberg

I suppose it’s great news that Mark Zuckerberg is organizing a lobbying group to support immigration reform, as he announces here (see also our past coverage). But at the end of the day, I don’t think there’s actually a good economic rationale for the “high skill only” approach that the tech sector seems to prefer, and I’m ambivalent about its getting more money and a high-profile endorsement. Let’s take a look at the case Zuckerberg makes:

Earlier this year I started teaching a class on entrepreneurship at an after-school program in my community… One day I asked my students what they thought about going to college. One of my top aspiring entrepreneurs told me he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to go to college because he’s undocumented. His family is from Mexico, and they moved here when he was a baby. Many students in my community are in the same situation; they moved to the United States so early in their lives that they have no memories of living anywhere else.

These students are smart and hardworking, and they should be part of our future.

Fair enough. But why should only the “smart and hardworking” students be part of our future? The principles of comparative advantage imply that there are gains from trade with all sorts of people, not just “smart and hardworking” ones. Immigrants who are sort of dumb and/or a bit lazy can also gain by coming here, and we can gain by hiring them, renting them accommodations, selling goods to them, maybe even marrying them (e.g., if we have no other marital options, or if in addition to being sort of dumb and/or a bit lazy, they’re beautiful and nice). Meritocracy has its place, but is there really a good reason for the mere right to reside in the US to be allocated in a meritocratic fashion? And even if you want to discriminate in favor of the “smart and hardworking,” how?

This is, after all, the American story. My great-grandparents came through Ellis Island. My grandfathers were a mailman and a police officer. My parents are doctors. I started a company. None of this could have happened without a welcoming immigration policy, a great education system and the world’s leading scientific community that created the Internet.

Today’s students should have the same opportunities — but our current system blocks them.

Good. But remember that Ellis Island accepted almost everyone, not just the “smart and hardworking.” Continue reading Mark Zuckerberg

Update on Zuckerberg’s group: fwd.us

On Monday, I blogged about Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration reform group, which had not been launched. The group was launched yesterday (Thursday, April 11, 2013), and most of the details were as expected in my previous blog post. The group is called FWD.us and has an eponymous website. The roster of supporters on the website reads like a who’s who of the tech industry Here are links to some news and commentary items related to the group that were published at and after launch:

Here’s a quote from Zuckerberg’s op-ed that reveals his vision for the immigration-related agenda of the group, and just how far it is from an open borders vision:

Comprehensive immigration reform that begins with effective border security, allows a path to citizenship and lets us attract the most talented and hardest-working people, no matter where they were born.

Some of the reactions from different people whom I’ve discussed this with include (note that some of the reactions are mutually contradictory, indicating the diversity of people I’ve discussed this with):

  • Zuckerberg’s op-ed is boilerplate text, i.e., it reveals nothing specific, and could be widely re-used for any future direction of the group.
  • Zuckerberg’s use of an overtly citizenist framing for the group’s ambitions is interesting, though not necessarily uplifting. The competitive angle to Zuckerberg’s citizenism is even more unfortunate, though he does pay lip service to migration not necessarily being a zero sum game.
  • Zuckerberg’s selectivity — attract the most talented and hardest-working people — suggests either a degree of selectivity even higher than that found in the modern immigration regime in the United States, or a serious degree of delusion regarding just how many potential migrants could be the “most talented” and/or the “hardest-working people.”
  • Zuckerberg’s putting securing the borders at the top of his agenda is puzzling.
  • Zuckerberg’s focus on a path to citizenship suggests a territorialist focus, which does not seem to resonate well with the open borders message. It’s not in conflict with complete open borders, but could conflict with some keyhole solutions such as guest worker programs.

Hopefully, we’ll publish more on this group and on other related initiatives as we get more information.

UPDATE: Here is a more detailed post from Nathan with his criticisms of Zuckerberg.

Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration reform group

Mark Zuckerberg, the principal founder of social networking service Facebook, has of late been interested in influencing US politics. Zuckerberg was one of 100 tech executives who signed a letter urging the US Congress and White House to pass significant immigration reforms. His ambitions in the political arena seem to be bigger, consonant with Facebook’s lofty motto of making the world more open and connected.

Evelyn Rusli reported in the Wall Street Journal in the article Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Starting Political Group (March 26) that a planned political group by Zuckerberg would focus (initially) on comprehensive immigration reform. According to the WSJ:

The group, which so far doesn’t have a name, is aiming to raise roughly $50 million and has already secured commitments in the tens of millions of dollars from Mr. Zuckerberg and more than a dozen other tech executives including LinkedIn Corp. founder Reid Hoffman, said these people.


Mr. Zuckerberg has told confidantes that the new group will initially be focused on comprehensive immigration reform and making the pathway to U.S. citizenship less complicated for all immigrants, said people familiar with the CEO’s thinking. The group also plans to focus on issues including education reform and funding for scientific research.

The new group has also enlisted several consultants well versed in Beltway politics. Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is especially active on a day-to-day basis, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

Joe Lockhart, Facebook’s former vice president of global communications and a former press secretary under president Bill Clinton’s administration, and Jon Lerner, a Republican strategist are also involved, another person familiar with the matter said.

More recently, Politico claims to have obtained an internal prospectus (it’s multiple pages, so you may prefer reading the printable version) for the immigration reform group. The prospectus was drafted by Joe Green, a close friend of Zuckerberg’s who seems to be doing much of the legwork for the group. Here’s Politico describing and quoting the prospectus:

Under a section called “our tactical assets,” the prospectus lists three reasons why “people in tech” can be organized into “one of the most powerful political forces.”

“1: We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals. We saw the tip of the iceberg with SOPA/PIPA.

“2: “Our voice carries a lot of weight because we are broadly popular with Americans.

“3. We have individuals with a lot of money. If deployed properly this can have huge influence in the current campaign finance environment.”

Joe Green has already backtracked from some of the assertions made in the prospectus. According to Politico:

“Several prominent leaders in the tech community, operating solely as individuals, continue to work on forming an issues advocacy organization that would seek to promote issues such as comprehensive immigration reform and education reform,” Green said. “However, some of the information contained in this email is outdated and not representative of the kind of work this organization will perform. Moreover, I regret some of the language in the email was poorly-chosen and could give a misimpression of the views and aspirations of this organization and those associated with it.”

The leaked prospectus confirms the bipartisan nature of the group highlighted in the WSJ article:

Signed on to be the Zuckerberg group’s campaign manager is Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Serving as political advisers are two Bush White House veterans: Dan Senor, who also served as Paul Ryan’s chief adviser during his vice presidential run, and Facebook executive Joel Kaplan.

The prospectus describes the group as a unique entity in the immigration fight. Listed among qualities that “we uniquely bring to this fight,” the prospectus says the Zuckerberg’s group is the “only well-funded bipartisan pro-reform group.”

“We have assembled the best people and most funding on this issue, and will win by focusing our activity in the districts of key members of Congress and senators,” the prospectus reads.

They also appear to intend to use standard political influence tactics of the same sort that restrictionists have successfully employed in the past:

Under a “tactics” section, the Zuckerberg group details plans for “grassroots and grasstops” organizing in targeted congressional districts, online advocacy campaigns, paid online and television advertising that will be “critical to creating the political infrastructure we need” and “earned media.”

“Given the status of our funders and quality of our team, we will drive national and local narratives to properly frame our agenda,” the prospectus states. The prospectus says the group’s support will provide cover for the “many congressmen and senators who want to vote for this but need the political space at home,”

The group’s listed “immediate” goal is to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which it calls “a unique opportunity to launch our organization. It is an issue that is critical to our community, that we can win, but where our help can be the difference maker.”

Elsewhere in the prospectus the group says its qualities include a “pragmatic focus on what moves votes, not talking about ourselves.”

On the apparent direction of the group

It’s too early to clearly say what direction the group will take, though “open borders” is probably not a phrase the group would associate itself with. I think it’s quite likely that it will be focused primarily on what is sometimes called “high-skilled immigration” and will advocate proposals similar to the startup visa. There is likely to be considerable overlap in goals and tactics with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Partnership for a New American Economy and with the March for Innovation.

Zuckerberg’s group’s suggested focus (per the WSJ piece) on a path to citizenship suggests a somewhat different focus from that of hardcore open borders advocates, but more context would be needed for evaluation. From what I’ve gathered based on talking to some Silicon Valley people, most people in Silicon Valley are focused on free movement and the ability to work and found companies, and they do not place much value of the path to citizenship (though they are presumably not opposed to it). In this respect, Mark Zuckerberg’s focus on a path to citizenship (if the WSJ article is indeed correct about this) differs somewhat both from the focus of open borders advocates and that of Silicon Valley migration evangelists.

I doubt that tactics similar to those used to protest against SOPA and PIPA will be successful in a pro-immigration direction. In the case of SOPA and PIPA, the public was mostly indifferent, with no strong sentiment in either direction, and given that many people have probably violated copyright law intentionally or unintentionally, likely to be somewhat sympathetic to the anti-SOPA cause after hearing what it’s about. With the issue of immigration, a sizable minority of the population is deeply restrictionist, and a majority is moderately restrictionist. The use of tactics such as those used against SOPA and PIPA may well drive a nativist backlash similar to the backlash that accompanied Bush’s attempted version of immigration reform, and Obama’s original version of healthcare reform.

I’m not a political expert at all, so there may be many ways to pull off political activism of the sort that Green suggests without engendering a backlash — I just find it hard to think of them. It’s also possible that Green and the group at large may have already decided not to use SOPA-style tactics in their push for their version of immigration reform.

On the size and influence of the group

Given the importance of migration as an issue, it’s heartening to see a person as rich and influential as Zuckerberg devoting his attention to the matter.

$50 million sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not clear what fraction of it will be devoted to immigration advocacy, consider that the group also plans to focus on education and research issues. The timetable of how the money is to be spent is also unclear. It seems highly unlikely that a lot of money will be spent in the near future in order to bring about any significant change in policy direction. The bipartisan nature of the group suggests a potential for long-term influence.

Zuckerberg’s donation history

Zuckerberg, who turns 29 in a month, already has a fairly impressive donation history quantitatively speaking, but the cost-effectiveness and social importance of some of his past donations could be questioned. It’s not clear what impact his $100 million donation to the Newark public school system has had, and skeptics might question his $500 million donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (which, amazingly, does not appear to have a Wikipedia page at the time of writing of this article). Hopefully, Zuckerberg has learned from previous giving experiences and his efforts to kickstart the immigration reform group signifies his switch towards giving opportunities with greater potential upside.

UPDATE: The group launched three days after the publication of the post under the name FWD.us. More information is available in this follow-up post.