In an April 26th, 2019 article in the New Yorker, Sue Halpern discussed the rivalry between China and the United States over 5G technology. It’s clear from the article that China and America are in fierce competition in this field. In a sense this rivalry over 5G technology is a metaphor for the broader struggle between the two countries. In this brave new world, the question is how does the U.S. best compete? One way is to recruit the best and the brightest people worldwide in every field of significance, including the field of 5G technology. But that strategy runs up against an antiquated U.S. immigration policy, particularly with the main American technology-related H1B work visa program and access to green cards related to it. Let’s consider Halpern’s views and then what needs to be done regarding the H1B work visa program and green cards to make America more competitive.
The benefits of 5G technology
Halpern’s article, which later focuses on cybersecurity, begins with an outline of the benefits of 5G technology.
Two words explain the difference between our current wireless networks and 5G: speed and latency. 5G—if you believe the hype—is expected to be up to a hundred times faster. (A two-hour movie could be downloaded in less than four seconds.) That speed will reduce, and possibly eliminate, the delay—the latency—between instructing a computer to perform a command and its execution. This, again, if you believe the hype, will lead to a whole new Internet of Things, where everything from toasters to dog collars to dialysis pumps to running shoes will be connected. Remote robotic surgery will be routine, the military will develop hypersonic weapons, and autonomous vehicles will cruise safely along smart highways. The claims are extravagant, and the stakes are high. One estimate projects that 5G will pump twelve trillion dollars into the global economy by 2035, and add twenty-two million new jobs in the United States alone. This 5G world, we are told, will usher in a fourth industrial revolution.
In short, if China is the ascending power and struggling to become the future leader in the world, and the U.S. is in decline but striving to maintain its dominance, then 5G technology is the leading edge of where the current interests of these two countries clash.
Just how significant is this rivalry?
This rivalry actually could pose a threat to world peace. The threat is explained by Harvard history Professor Graham Allison in his excellent Ted talk on this subject. Professor Allison points out that in in his review of world history, 12 of the last 16 previous similar historic rivalries and transitions for world dominance ended in war. At the moment, this tug-of-war is drawing in other countries. For example, Canada was drawn into it because of a U.S. extradition request that led to the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. It is alleged that Huawei illegally did business in Iran through Skycom, a “hidden” subsidiary of Huawei, and that Meng made “misrepresentations” in that regard. Meanwhile, Australia, Japan and New Zealand have joined the Trump Administration’s campaign to ban Huawei hardware.
Big shortage of U.S. computer science personnel and H1B visas
As alluded to earlier, one of the biggest problems America faces in this technological rivalry is how hamstrung it is because of its current immigration system. According to the New York Times, the U.S. has a shortage of about 110,000 computer science jobs annually. In a normal situation, when a country runs short of technology workers, you would expect it to open the doors to foreign workers to fill the gap. But that’s not what is happening in America. To understand how the H1B visa program works is to understand what’s wrong with America’s current immigration policy and why America is falling behind other countries in technology.
To apply for an H1B visa normally one must file three applications. The first is with the Department of Labor to establish the foreign worker is going to be paid the prevailing wage rate paid to U.S. workers in that location according to wage surveys. In addition, the employer must establish that there are no current labor disputes at the job site. The application is filed only in early April each year. The second is with the Department of Homeland Security to establish that the position offered normally requires a minimum bachelor’s degree or higher in a specialty occupation such as engineering, accounting or interior designing. In addition, except for a restricted few positions working in university and research settings, only 85,000 visas are available and only with a start date of October 1st. Normally more than double that number apply so a lottery is run to choose winners. Finally, the third application is made to the Department of State at a U.S. Consulate overseas to obtain the H1B visa in the passport which applies to all applicants except Canadians. Three applications for one work visa!
Ring around the rosy
Applying for H1B visas requires dedication, time and is costly. Mistakes can lead to significant consequences for the applicants. The visas can be granted for only a maximum six years, although there are rigidly restricted extensions possible in circumstances where the applicants are applying for permanent residence. In addition, as Richard Burke, the C.E.O. of Envoy Global that partners with Harris Poll to produce an annual Immigration Trends Report points out, there is alarm about the potential termination of H-4 spousal employment authorizations that would undermine many H1B visa households dependent on two incomes. For some applicants, all this is just not worth the cost and the effort. The result is that America is losing top talent that is heading elsewhere. Burke suggests the program needs reform to provide more certainty, to process applications much faster and to provide an easier transition to green cards.
While adopting a replacement to the H1B work visa may not solve all of America’s problems in its rivalry with China and other countries in the technology sphere, giving up and doing nothing will certainly not benefit this country either. At the very least, the 5G rivalry serves to remind us of our handicap in the area of immigration and that it’s time to address it, starting with the H1B visa program.