MLK Day and the State of the Promise

It is important to reflect on our history as we enter times of great turmoil. This Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the life of Reverend King Jr and the many Black Americans that joined him on the road to civil rights.

King’s historic 1963 “March on Washington” was officially named the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” But today, corporate America shuts out college educated Blacks from high paying jobs in favor of cheap, imported labor, a disgrace to King’s memory which we celebrate today.

Simply stated, American engineers, technical workers, and scientists lose their jobs because their replacements come cheaper. H-1B visa holders displace Americans with years of service and good performance reviews at Disney, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, Southern California Edison, the University of California and dozens of other institutions. More than half of these H-1B workers earn the Level One, basic skill wage. Some in the industry claim that not enough qualified Americans are available to fill available IT jobs, recent studies by the respected, non-partisan National Bureau of Economic Research, RAND Corporation, and Urban Institute all found that colleges and universities graduate science and engineering students faster than businesses create jobs in those professions.

The expanding IT labor pool has stagnated salaries. Supply and demand dictates that if there were a domestic labor shortage, wages should increase. Instead, they’ve been flat, with many Americans holding STEM degrees unable to enter the field and a sharply higher share of foreign workers taking jobs in the information technology industry.

On Martin Luther King Day, a look into how employers’ craven preference for cheap H-1B labor harms black, Latinos and women is telling. Last year, the St. Louis Dispatch published a column titled “Silicon Valley is using H-1B visas to crowd out American minorities.” Author Tom Broadwater, Americans4Work president, wrote that the presence of H-1B visa workers has “especially hurt non-white, non-male native-born Americans.”

Example: Audrey Hatten-Milholin, a 54-year-old Black woman spent 17 years working in the technology department at the University of California, San Francisco. Last February, UCSF laid off Hatten-Milholin and others, then gave their jobs to a younger male H-1B visa holders from India. Eventually, the H-1Bs will return to India but continue to work for UCSF.

UCSF claims that H-1Bs represent a $6 million annual economic benefit. Critics note, however, that the $6 million total is a tiny fraction of UCSF’s $5.4 billion yearly budget, and that providing competent service to patients and doctors located in San Francisco from more than 8,000 miles away in India is impossible. In November, Hatten-Milholin and several of her laid off colleagues filed a discrimination suit against the university.

Although the King era preceded high tech, his biographer, close friend, speech writer, and personal counsel, Clarence B. Jones in his book “What Would Martin Say?” wrote that “Martin would be outraged by the greater immorality of importing a slave class into this country especially one that has robbed so many African-Americans of their hard-won livelihoods….” The plight of minority STEM workers shows that there is still much to be done.

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