Not so long ago, Elizabeth Holmes was a wunderkind of the tech universe, a pioneer poised to revolutionize the global blood-testing industry. Her company, called Theranos, possessed a seemingly magical machine capable of myriad diagnostic tests derived from the tiniest drop of a patient’s blood. The machine never worked as promised, and the results her company produced were actually garnered from sending blood samples out to traditional medical testing sites where traditional testing was done.
The truth came out, charges of fraud were filed, and at the beginning of 2022, Holmes the girl wonder of Silicon Valley became a convicted felon, found guilty on four of 11 federal charges of swindling investors. An impressive who’s-who list of powerful, high-profile figures had vouched for Holmes’ integrity and brilliance: Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and a host of bank presidents were all on Team Theranos.
How she defrauded so many extremely smart, powerful, and rich people is no surprise. As long as there have been snakes, there have been snake oil salesmen and people willing to believe a big lie more than a little one. Why she wasn’t exposed sooner, and how Holmes kept that big lie going for as long as she did, was in large part facilitated by another glitch in our frayed immigration system.
We usually think of an exploited immigrant dressed in farmworker clothes or in a housekeeping uniform, not in a shirt and tie and with an iPad in their hands. But there is an immigration law loophole Holmes and her business partner drove armored cars full of cash through on a routine basis.
When scientists at Holmes’ company, charged with making the blood diagnostic machine work, told her the technology was faulty to the extreme, she fired them. The solution to her brain drain was the H1-B foreign worker visa. Dozens of chemical engineers and scientists were brought over from India on H1-B visas.
The visa is valid only if the company can make a reasonable case that a citizen with the same qualifications cannot be found. With the list of so many influential friends, it is no surprise Theranos was able to acquire the large number of H1-B visas they were eventually granted.
These immigrants may have been working in a high-tech lab and being paid relatively well, but they were routinely harassed and exploited. Many big corporations do this, and many of them also have the names of highly influential and powerful people on their board of directors’ stationery.
Corporations have turned the cliché that immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t do on its head. In its place is a new cliché: Corporations refuse to pay citizens a fair salary if they can find professional immigrants they can pay less.
Holmes and her business partner added their own touch by abuse to this broken system. According to court documents, they pressured these immigrant scientists and engineers to falsify their findings to keep the investors coming. Any holder of an H1-B visa that deviated from the company’s party line was threatened with termination. Citizen scientists with a conscience could get a job elsewhere, but for immigrant scientists, losing the job meant the loss of their visa, putting them into an economic vice.
And as America’s elite heaped praise on the genius of Holmes, her company was less a futuristic Silicon Valley miracle than a medieval serfdom.