Much of Silicon Valley has united in an effort to push back against President Trump’s polarizing ban on refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. Some of that is because they want to take a stand against those specific policies. But it’s also an effort to build momentum against the immigration measures that they fear may come next.
Their biggest concern is a draft executive order showing that the Trump administration is planning to revise the H-1B program, which provides around 85,000 visas annually to high-skilled foreigners who are supposed to bring expertise that can’t be found among American workers.
H-1B visas are given to people across a wide variety of industries, but they’re particularly crucial to tech: The top three H-1B jobs are computer systems analysts, application software developers, and computer programmers. Together, those occupations make up half of the visas in the H-1B program.
The Trump administration has offered few details on what it plans to do with the program other than looking into how to make it “more efficient” and ensuring it admits “the best and the brightest.”
Still, Silicon Valley leaders have good reason to be concerned that the administration is considering cutting back the total number of visas under the program, given the administration’s general hard line on immigration and top Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s concern that Silicon Valley has too many Asian CEOs (a claim that is not only xenophobic but also isn’t grounded in reality).
Adding to Silicon Valley’s unease: Language in Trump’s draft order would eliminate the “startup visa” initiative that President Obama had set to go into effect this year. (For the time being, it’s already been frozen by Trump.) The program is supposed to make it easier for foreign entrepreneurs to stay and work in the US if they can demonstrate that their companies have the capacity to grow and generate new jobs swiftly.
The tech industry is not happy about this prospect, to say the least. It’s difficult to overstate the value that high-skilled immigrants add to the tech industry — and the broader economy. The National Foundation for American Policy has pointed out that more than half of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion or more have been founded by foreign-born workers. And if the net is cast wider to include key members of management or product development teams, immigrants have roles in a whopping 70 percent of those companies.
As this chart, courtesy of Michael Coren’s report on Silicon Valley’s immigration worries at Quartz, points out, the diversity of these high-performing entrepreneurs is extraordinary:
That track record of immigrant accomplishment in entrepreneurship isn’t a mistake, but rather the result of policy. The US’s ability and commitment to attracting top talent from across the world has been around for decades — and made America a leader in opening its doors to innovators across the global arena:
A University of California Davis study that Coren cites found that people on the H-1B program added 10 to 20 percent annual productivity growth between 1990 and 2010 — adding more than half a trillion dollars to the US economy.
The fact that the H-1B program and other high-skill-focused immigration policies are a real source of American prosperity doesn’t mean that criticism of the program is without merit. There’s evidence that some outsourcing firms have gamed the system by bombarding the applicant pool with their own candidates and used it to replace native-born workers with cheaper and more temporary labor — undermining the exact purpose of the program, which is to pay foreign workers fairly for highly specialized work that can’t be carried out by an American.
The issue is that Trump’s administration has shown no signs that it’s looking to address that phenomenon with nuance or in a way that preserves the ability of immigrants to boost the American economy. If the administration does end up dramatically changing the H-1B program to make it more restrictive, many people around the world who could bring extraordinary ideas and skills to the US will read it one way: You’re not welcome here.