MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to begin today's program by talking about immigration. This week the Obama administration announced plans to allow the spouses of some highly skilled, temporary immigrants to work in the United States. The administration hopes this change will help keep the best and brightest technology workers and scientists in this country. But there are critics on both sides. Some say the proposal is too narrow, others say their promise leaves fewer jobs for Americans.
We wanted to hear more about what this change could mean. So we've called upon Laura Murray-Tjan. She is an immigration lawyer and professor at Boston College Law School. She joins us from Boston. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
LAURA MURRAY-TJAN: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Also joining us is Vinny Lingham. He is co-founder and CEO of gyft.com. He's an immigrant from South Africa. He's advocated for immigration and visa reform. And he's with us from Stanford, California. Mr. Lingham, thank you so much for joining us as well.
VINNY LINGHAM: Yeah, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, Laura Murray-Tjan, let me start with you, professor. This proposal affects workers on something called H-1Bs. And that could be hundreds of thousands of people. But it doesn't affect all of them, am I right?
MURRAY-TJAN: That's correct. It actually affects a narrow group of them. So H-1Bs, like you said, they're specialty occupation workers primarily in the STEM fields - so science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And this affects the spouses of those workers who are already on a path to obtaining permanent residency.
MARTIN: So these are people - aren't just people who are just here working who expect to stay here for the - the H-1Bs are generally - what? - six years. They - visas for six years? So people during that time who've applied for permanent residency, a green card, they are the people who can apply. Is that correct?
MURRAY-TJAN: Exactly. And their employers have to have sponsored them for those green cards. So it's not a unilateral decision on their part.
MARTIN: OK, go ahead. So why - Vinny, I want to hear from you as well. But what does this allow - what change will this make? Is this a big change? Since it doesn't affect all of these workers, it'll only affect some. Is this still a significant change?
LINGHAM: Look, every step forward is, I think, significant in the way we look at immigration reform. But it's a big change for people who have been living here, you know, for many years paying their taxes, you know, productive members of society and having spouses who are either not living with them in the United States and living back home because financially they can't afford to do that or living locally but not being able to, you know, contribute to society effectively.
And so therefore, you know, it puts pressure on the families 'cause you've got, you know, one working spouse. And, you know, I think it's just fair, right? Someone has been here for a couple years. They are on the path to permanent residency, and I personally think that the spouse should have probably been able to work from the beginning. I think if you bring - if someone is coming across on a highly skilled visa, and, you know, what's the point of leaving the spouse at home not being able to do anything? And so, you know, but fundamentally we're moving in the right direction. I think more could be done, but there are challenges to that.
MARTIN: Laura, could you explain to us - Professor Murray-Tjan, could you explain to us, like, what - what it is - amplify the issue that Mr. Lingham is talking about here. What is the problem that this is designed to address? And I'd also wanted to ask you why do you think it's evoked kind of a strong reaction, particularly even on the Republican side where a lot of people on the Republican side have traditionally been supporters of immigration that favors highly skilled workers? So talk a little bit about that, if you would?
MURRAY-TJAN: Sure. Please do call me Laura, instead of professor. That does go down easier, believe it or not.
MURRAY-TJAN: Well, there are two problems. One of the problems is that the Republicans are afraid of executive overreach. They're afraid that Obama is experimenting with exercising executive discretion - giving work cards, for example, to the deferred childhood arrivals. That program of June 2012, that was a first major step. Now, he comes along. He's giving work authorization to the spouses of H-1B workers. That's the immigration and nationality law title for these people - the H-1B workers.
So it makes them nervous that he's taking these steps towards unilaterally authorizing people to either remain or to work. And of course they're worried about displacing American workers. And that has gotten - that has gotten spoken a lot about in the past few days by people like Senator Jeff Sessions and Senator Chuck Grassley. That's their stated concern, in addition to the executive overreaching.
MARTIN: And can you - have you, as a lawyer, addressed people who have been in this situation? Talk a little bit about that.
MURRAY-TJAN: As a lawyer, I do not actually do H-1...
MARTIN: No, I'm asking you, like, what - in the field, like, is thus one of those pressing concerns? Or is this a...
MURRAY-TJAN: This is a huge, huge issue.
MARTIN: And tell me...
MURRAY-TJAN: This is a gigantic issue.
MARTIN: Tell me why.
MURRAY-TJAN: Well, the H-1B cap was reached within a week of the application period. There are so many more workers who want to obtain this visa than can. And there are tech companies clamoring for these workers. So it is viewed as an enormous problem both by the immigration bar and by the tech companies themselves.
MARTIN: Mr. Lingham, what about that? I mean, is this - do you view this as kind of a competitive issue, that - you are a permanent resident with a green card yourself. You're the CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley. Do you see this as part of a kind of a competitive advantage in trying to hire the best people, offering this?
LINGHAM: Well, I mean, so one of the people startups have right now is that we really can't compete with the big guys. We're struggling. And the talent pool is big, but it's very tight. So hiring engineers, it's, you know - it's a challenge. So, you know, the only way for us to solve the problem typically is to look elsewhere for talent because if, you know, Google, Facebook, you know, they're sucking up the thousands of workers that are already here, we have to pull workers in from, you know, other places.
Now, you can have two arguments to this. You could argue, well, we should be pulling them in from other parts of the United States. But the reality is, we, you know - as startups, we need to hire people who typically are coming out of grad school, studied for, you know, computer science, etc. And there's just a limited number of graduates.
I mean, the U.S. only has, you know, 5 percent of the world's population. So if you look at sort of the niches we all play in, in certain areas of focus, who are highly skilled, they may only be, call it - you know, I'm throwing out numbers here - but a couple of hundred people in a specific field related to machine learning, for example. So if they're all going to the Googles and Facebooks of the world, you got to look elsewhere, right?
So there is a - just a mathematical need for us to look elsewhere because we just don't have enough grads in the U.S. in certain fields. And, you know, the Obama administration and, you know, many other other political groups have been advocating for STEM. And there are just not enough sort of STEM - science, technology, education, mathematics - graduates.
MARTIN: Can I ask you about that, though, Mr. Lingham? I have two questions I wanted to ask you briefly, if you can. That, first, to address the argument that some of the Republicans have made and presumably some other - presumably some Democrats would agree with this - that this really relieves pressure on the educational system to produce more American graduates.
LINGHAM: Right, but we've actually misaligned the incentives 'cause what we do is we give universities in the U.S. gradings. And we tell them, well, you know what? You should accept more people from international countries and educate them here because that will give you higher rankings when we rank the schools.
So guess what? We go in our universities, you know, who are partially funded by taxpayer money, you know, to an extent, go and bring in people from around the world to create diversity in the classroom. But then these people can't work in our country, and we ship them back to their country of origin. That makes no sense to me at all.
MARTIN: Is it also that many of these spouses are also highly skilled themselves? Is that part of it?
LINGHAM: I mean, typically, you don't really get - you know, use the disparity between people who are highly skilled and the spouses they choose. Sometimes, you do. And sometimes, they're not even in the same field. So, you know, it doesn't mean that just because one person is a scientist the other one is going to be a scientist. It just could be, you know, a lawyer and an artist or a scientist and an artist. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're in the same, you know, industry or field.
I think, you know, when you look at the problem just purely from a quantitative perspective, I think we've got something like 500,000 H-1Bs, and of those, 100,000 have got applications in for green cards, permanent residency. So if, for example, all of them are going on to the green cards and all their spouses were put on - you know, given work permits, that's 100,000 extra workers, you know, into the market.
Now, if you're looking at the sort of, you know unemployment numbers, we're talking millions. I mean, this is not even a - this is a fraction of the number of workers that are out there right now. And, quite frankly, I think given where these - where their spouses probably work and the areas they're working in, there may be pockets where jobs are available, and they can fill the need. But I think it's much more - it's much better to have productive members of society than people being forced to sit at home.
MARTIN: Laura, can I ask you a question in the time that we have left? Is that - does the administration have the capacity to process all of these applications? I mean, as you just - you mentioned earlier that there's already been - the administration has decided to administratively move forward with what it had hoped to do legislatively, which is to allow deferred action on children who are brought here as children by parents, even if the parents are themselves not here with proper authorization.
So that's a huge number of people, is it not? So do they even have the capacity administratively to process this because part of the issue here is the backlog, right?
MURRAY-TJAN: Well, there are no conditions attached to those spouses' employment authorization documents. So it's actually a fairly quick and easy process. You prove that you're in the process of applying for a green card, and you file an application for work authorization. And it's actually quite simple. So I would anticipate that that would not grow into a substantial backlog.
MARTIN: So - and, Laura, finally, what are these spouses doing now? If they can't work...
MURRAY-TJAN: They might be...
MARTIN: ...What do they do?
MURRAY-TJAN: They might be going to school. They might be staying at home for their children because most of these spouses, anecdotally, are in fact wives. You do hear stories about depression, alienation, suicidality. It's a major problem.
And, you know, it was interesting. One of Vinny's first comments was that this seems fair. It really is a humanitarian issue. It's almost cruel to the spouses of the skilled workers to have to remain home and end their careers when they could be productive members of our society, like Vinny said, raising children while working, being role models for their children in terms of women in the workplace. And instead, they're being forced to languish and sacrifice their own talents. So like he said, I think it's only fair. You know, of course the president could have gone further and granted work authorization to all of these spouses. But it would have faced much more blowback from the opponents to this policy.
MARTIN: So even the temporary workers - you're saying that some advocates would like even the temporary workers to have had the right to have their spouses to work. And briefly - we don't have that much time - but do you have any sympathy for the other side of the argument, that people say, well, this reduces pressure on American universities to train more STEM graduates?
MURRAY-TJAN: I have never heard that argument. I've heard what Vinny said, that we actually fear a brain drain as our highly skilled graduates are leaving the country because they can't get visas. And, yes, Obama could have given visas to all of the H4s.
MARTIN: Lara Murray-Tjan is an immigration lawyer and professor at Boston College Law School. Vinny Lingham is cofounder and CEO of gyft.com. Thanks to you both for joining us. We appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.