Trump targets tech’s H-1B visa hiring tool
Express News Global
Published: January 31, 2017
SAN FRANCISCO — President Trump’s relationship with Silicon Valley has always been volatile at best, but it seems things soon may get even more contentious.
Administration officials have drafted a new executive order aimed at overhauling, among other things, the H-1B work-visa program that technology companies have long relied on to bring top foreign engineering talent to their U.S.-based locations.
In his news briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the possible executive order on work visas “is part of a larger immigration effort” and stems from “an overall need to look at all of these measures.”
The order, which has yet to come into effect, arrives on the heels of Friday’s controversial immigration ban targeting seven majority-Muslim countries that sparked protests at airports around the country over the weekend.
That ban, which the White House modified Sunday to not affect green card holders, roiled tech leaders who almost universally denounced the move.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky offered free housing to anyone displaced by the ban, while Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in a Facebook post that it was “time to link arms together to protect American values of freedom and opportunity.”
This new executive order, which was first reported by Bloomberg, takes aim at both H-1B visas, which are capped at 65,000 a year and are set aside for so-called “specialty positions,” as well as visas used for temporary agricultural workers, summer student workers and intracompany transfers.
Tech sector stocks were down 1% on Monday’s news.
The order is aimed at ensuring that “officials administer our laws in a manner that prioritizes the interests of American workers and — to the maximum degree possible — the jobs, wages and well-being of those workers,” according to a copy of the document provided to USA TODAY.
This executive order would “create a similar chaos to the travel ban,” says Sam Adair, an immigration lawyer at Graham Adair.
“It would be incredibly disruptive to what is a natural part of the recruitment process” for the tech industry, universities, hospitals and biotech, he says.
That process begins April 1, when the annual application process for H-1B visas starts.
But Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of law at Cornell University and expert on immigration law, cautions that the order is only a draft and that it does not set out specific changes to the H-1B visa program, only suggests that it be examined with the thought of what’s best for American workers.
Current H-1B regulations require that those granted the visa have at least a bachelor’s degree and must be paid the prevailing wage.
“There have been allegations that foreigner workers are coming in at lower wages, if they’re doing that that is violating the current statue,” he says.
H-1B visa are used by tech companies, by hospitals looking to hire doctors, especially in medically underserved areas and by school districts looking to hire language teachers when U.S. teachers are not available.
Technology companies are in an on-going struggle to hire computer-science professionals to power their companies. Executives often claim that they must look overseas because there is a shortage of home-grown math and science graduates.
Critics charge that tech firms lack diversity because they reflexively look to hire white and Asian males and overlook a growing pipeline of women and people of color who are developing programming skills.
Others cite surveys that question the oft-stated shortage of math and science graduates. In 2013, for example, the Economic Policy Institute released a study concluding that the U.S. has “more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.”
The logic went that if there was a domestic labor shortage, wages would rise. But researchers found that salaries remained flat and Americans with science and math degrees found it difficult to get jobs.
The controversial work-visa program has prompted dueling partisan legislation.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has proposed a bill that would award visas to companies willing to pay the highest salaries. A bill from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) would raise the salary requirement for the positions to $100,000 a year, up from $60,000, and eliminate a master’s degree exemption.
Jobs could flee overseas, some contend
Although the debate over the visa program is only likely to escalate, some tech world experts are convinced a more restricted H-1B program would negatively impact the American economy.
Foreign tech workers could “find employment in other countries with more attractive immigration laws and compete against us,” says Mark Koestler, business immigration partner at Kramer Levin. “If we turn away professionals who seek H-1B status, we will lose many future entrepreneurs who will create future jobs for Americans in the United States.”
The H-1B program is a “critical source of legal, skilled labor for the U.S. economy,” says Venky Ganesan, managing director of Menlo Ventures, a venture-capital firm in Silicon Valley. To curtail it, he says, would wreak havoc on how tech companies recruit workers.
“Many who came to the U.S. (via H-1B) end up starting companies in the U.S.,” Ganesan says, citing Jyoti Bansal, a native of India who started AppDynamics, a software maker that was sold to Cisco Systems for $3.7 billion last week before AppDynamic planned to go public.
“The best way to create jobs in America is to create companies in America,” Ganesan says.
The Partnership for a New American Economy concluded in a 2016 report that 40.2% Fortune 500 firms had at least one founder who either immigrated to the United States or was the child of immigrants. Those firms generated more than $4.8 trillion in revenue in 2014 and employed 18.9 million people globally, the report found.
Well-known tech firms founded by immigrants, including Google, Intel, Yahoo, and Ebay.
Elon Musk has created tens of thousands of U.S. jobs with Tesla and SpaceX, hails from South Africa.
Musk, who is on a new presidential business advisory committee that will meet Friday, was one of a handful of top tech CEOs who met with Trump in New Yorkshortly after the election. At the time, Trump told the assembled leaders of Amazon, Facebook and other household names that “there’s nobody like you in the world … Anything we can do to help this go along, we’re going to be there for you.”
During the campaign, however, some tech leaders were openly critical of Trump and a range of employees vowed they would not use their skills to create a Muslim employee registry as had been suggested.