Why Bother With Immigration?

Harold Miller hit the nail on the head in this morning's P-G, running down statistics on how is coming to Pittsburgh and who is not. He posted a longer version of the piece at his blog. Meanwhile, the P-G ran a companion piece about H1-B visas, and the struggles by local employers -- notably new arrival Sycor -- to lift caps on their number, so that they can hire more of the skilled employees -- immigrants! -- that they want to.

Harold Miller has the statistics and the argument exactly right: Pittsburgh runs woefully short by national standards when it comes to attracting immigrants of all skill levels and colors.
Although our current rate of in-migration is still too low, at least it’s moving
us in the right direction – attracting young people, highly educated
individuals, and a somewhat more diverse population than we have today. Our
challenge is to make them feel welcome, and to provide the job opportunities
they need to stay and build roots here.

Harold ends there; he doesn't detail the end of the argument: Why, exactly, is low immigration a problem for the region?

As one commenter at his blog notes, low immigration is a symptom, not a problem. The problem is the economy. People go where the jobs are, and Pittsburgh isn't creating enough new jobs -- Sycor notwithstanding -- to generate the in-bound migration that other regions see. "Spin-off" and start-up development based near Pitt and CMU is important and useful, but it's not a jobs-generating sector, at least not in the short term.

Moreover, there are sizable communities in the Pittsburgh region that see potential increases in immigration rates as undesirable -- either because immigration of lower-skilled workers threatens existing blue-collar employment and depresses wages, or because in-bound higher-skilled workers compete for positions with people who already live here, or both. Somewhere in Pittsburgh, someone is asking why Sycor wants to raise the H1-B visa cap rather than hire skilled people who already live in Pittsburgh.

The problem, in other words, is that immigration is perceived by many as a threat to the pie that we already have, rather than as part of a process of growing the pie. Chris Schultz reprises some concrete ideas for breaking out of this cycle and growing the pie -- I'm especially partial to transit-oriented development, and to growing Pittsburgh's green energy economy. But who will lead?

I think that Sycor's leadership is also on the right track. Part of the solution here has to be in-migrants themselves seizing positions as opinion leaders, making the case that they are Pittsburgh's future, just as immigrants created Pittsburgh's past. Left to its own devices, the region may lack the rhetorical or political will to escape the mentality that prioritizes conserving wages and jobs over expanding them. Is this the ultimate immigration irony? That only immigrants themselves, with sufficient numbers and visibility, can lift Pittsburgh out of the doldrums? If only we could attract them and give them a platform . . . .


9 Responses to "Why Bother With Immigration?"

Schultz said... 4/14/2008 7:00 AM

"Part of the solution here has to be in-migrants themselves seizing positions as opinion leaders, making the case that they are Pittsburgh's future, just as immigrants created Pittsburgh's past."

I think you hit the nail on the head. The Pittsburgh of today was built by the immigrants of our past. I frown when I see the regional leaders dancing around this issue, like last year's diversity fair where their aim was to say "Look, we really are diverse!" Admitting we have a problem is step 1. The next step is a plan, but then the hard part is actually executing.

My concern with raising the cap on H1B visa is the type of workers that these firms will bring in from offshore. There doesn't seem to be any enforceable regulation on this. If the H1's are software developers that come here to work for cheap at the Alcoas, PNCs, etc, is that a job that where we need to bring someone from offshore or could it be done by a programmer already looking for work here in the US?

Burgher Jon said... 4/14/2008 9:03 AM

In order for anyone to get an H1-B visa the company has to show that they tried to hire a US based worker and were unable to find one. H1-Bs (unlike immigration from Mexico or offshoring) is not about replacing a simple skill-set with a cheeper resource. It's about attracting the best minds in the world to work in our country and hopefully our city. These people will fill jobs that are just sitting empty right now.

Uniquetake Photography said... 4/14/2008 11:31 AM

thanks for posting about these issues! comments are spot on.

rick byerly

Schultz said... 4/14/2008 11:50 AM


I know that is how the H1's are supposed to work, but I also know first hand that a lot of the firms who have the H1's use them to bring in cheap IT resources. I have witnessed this firsthand at several big employers here in Pittsburgh.

"These people will fill jobs that are just sitting empty right now."

Ask an independent contractor who is now out of a job because his client can pay $30 an hour for an H1 with the same skillset. Despite what we've been told, the lobbyists for the firms that own H1 B visas have worked hard to get our representatives in Washington to loosen the regulations on who gets an H1 and the types of jobs that they fill here in the states.

Anonymous said... 4/15/2008 4:24 PM

Chris, I'm afraid this is exactly the attitude that holds Pittsburgh back. We need as much new talent as possible. Clinging to the myth that skilled people here can't get jobs is killing efforts to move forward.
God forbid we let local companies acquire cheaper skilled labor that allows them to compete better against companies elsewhere -- keeping and growing more jobs here rather than losing jobs or moving from Pittsburgh.
More immigrants mean higher startup rates, deeper talent pools, and more jobs for everyone. We simply must have growth, or no one wins, and boosting H1-Bs is one of the very key ways to boost both immigration and our skilled labor pool.

Schultz said... 4/15/2008 10:00 PM

"Chris, I'm afraid this is exactly the attitude that holds Pittsburgh back."

Hahahaaha, that's rich. Let's bring in cheaper imported labor and kick the American workers to the curb. Heck, there are jobs at Wal Mart, right? Before you jump down my throat and (anonymously) call me a protetionist let me come out and say that yes, companies like Microsoft, Intel, and a host of other innovative US firms do need more H1's. But we need to bring in more H-1B's for the jobs our companies CANNOT fill with the current labor pool. It's a complex situation but I felt that Bill Gates had it right when he said that there were three "pillars" that we need to focus on in order to remain competitive over the next 50 years. From a few weeks back:

"Mr. Gates also highlighted what he considers the three policy pillars the U.S. must focus on if we are to retain our position as the world’s innovation leader over the next 50 years: strengthening America’s education system; fixing America’s immigration system; and increasing federal funding for basic research."

Our startups are not the ones benefiting from H1B's because the Indian firms that have a chunk of the H1's use them to provide big companies with cheap IT labor. We need to stop letting indians IT giants such as Wipro, TATA, and Infosys take advantage of the H1's by using them to replace American workers with cheaper Indian imports. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois spoke about this when he was asked a question from a concerned software engineer who was in attendance for a campaign event with the Senator in Mt Lebanon. Here are more details on the bill sponsored by Durbin last year.

Now, go back and read my three comments starting at the top. I first said I was concerned with raising the H1-B cap because of the lack of oversight in the way firms were using the H1's. If we have an overhaul of the legislation and the H1-B's start going to the firms that truly need them then I say good. We need changes to the current system though, that was my original point on H1-B's but I guess I needed to spell that out.

Anonymous said... 4/18/2008 9:29 AM

I would like to just point out to my fellow Americans in Pittsburgh that not all immigrants coming to Pittsburgh to work and contribute to the economy are the sterotypical mexican, asian and indian and on the H1B visa. My husband, a British national on an R1 working visa had been working in the area for several years and could not change jobs as such were the terms of the visa. If he had been able to we would have likely been able to afford a car and not relied on Pittsburgh's transit system, which as such had always prevented me from taking higher paying jobs. As was the case my husband was taxed so highly on his immigration status out of his take-home wage we were never able to make any sort of savings and nearly 1 1-2 years ago his employer suddenly lost his immigration papers and then fired him.
This led to us being forced to apply for an immediate green card and I'll spare the details but since I did not show up in a state office with a the stereotypical immigrant by my side, I was denied any social help for the entire year it took to get his green card and we had to live off of my minumum wage job with no assistance. I can say unfortunately that Pittsburgh has very little understanding of foreigners and I was asked many times why did I marry him, was he illegal and other embarassing and uneccesary things. In the end when he was legally allowed to work we found many Pittsburgh employers did not understand the legal card anyway. We went hungry quite a lot and found ourselves completely invisible here. Now I am in bankruptcy, my American name is ruined.
My husband is a volunteer fireman, the only non-american fireman in his squad. When September 11th happened, his team of Royal Marines contacted him and brought him to NY to recover bodies. I wish to say to those who are so angry about immigration to Pittsburgh and taking jobs from Americans that all immigrants are different and Americans get hurt in the process as well when you shut them out. I think Pittsburgh has a very bad concept of immigrants and needs to broaden its mind quickly.

Burgher Jon said... 4/20/2008 9:14 AM

There's no better way to show everyone that this issue has its shades of gray then to hear from both the black side and the white side. Both of you bring very personal stories to the table, and show why whatever solution we come to on imigration must be very well thought out.

Schultz said... 4/20/2008 12:36 PM

"I can say unfortunately that Pittsburgh has very little understanding of foreigners"

I would echo that comment for the majority of America. Our media does not cover enough on international affairs. Unless one is reading the blogs or The Economist, or watching international new programs, they don't hear much about what is going on overseas unless it has to do with gossip or some blunder W. Bush made while on a visit there.

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