President Donald Trump’s order suspending H-1B visas threatens the next wave of tech innovation, raising the risk that the US will lose the immigrant leaders needed to help us sustain the country’s economy.
The potential impact will be felt far beyond California’s Bay Area.
America has a long history of US immigrants becoming pillars of industry. Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876. Andrew Carnegie, also born in Scotland, led the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century.
In the tech industry of the 20th and 21st centuries, Intel’s Andy Grove (born in Hungary), Google’s Sergey Brin (Russia) and Sundar Pichai (India), and Tesla’s Elon Musk (South Africa) all immigrated to the United States. Apple founder Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the adopted son of a Cuban immigrant.
A 2018 study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that 55% of the 91 US startup companies valued at more than $1bn had at least one immigrant founder. Those companies with immigrant founders created an average of more than 1,200 jobs each. Their collective value: $248bn.
Yet Trump signed an executive order on Monday shutting out many new foreign workers until the end of the year. The move will not affect people outside the United States who already have valid visas.
US Secretary of Labour Eugene Scalia said it “would help ensure that the millions of Americans who are unemployed due to the coronavirus are first in line to fill job openings.”
Trump is merely using the pandemic and accompanying economic crisis to fulfil a long-cherished goal: restricting entry of foreigners into the United States. He hopes the manoeuvre will appeal to his supporters and boost his sagging poll numbers.
The order fails to recognise the benefits that well-educated workers from diverse backgrounds bring to America’s economy and culture. It also ignores the realities of America’s – and the world’s – changing workforce.
The H-1B programme allows companies to hire up to 85,000 highly skilled foreign professionals for positions with shortages of qualified American workers.
Unfortunately, some tech firms and outsourcing companies have abused the programme to drive down wages and facilitate outsourcing of US jobs, using loopholes to snag thousands of the visas. But suspending the programme isn’t the answer. The president and Congress should instead institute long-sought reforms proposed by Rep Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that would close the loopholes and end misapplication of the visas.
Tech companies for years have had an increasingly difficult time finding qualified candidates for unfilled technology jobs. The problem isn’t a shortage of applicants; tech companies often get dozens. But almost all of the tens of millions of American workers who have been laid off during the pandemic simply don’t have the skills required for the available tech jobs.
Trump fails to recognise the degree to which the United States benefits from attracting and retaining the world’s brightest minds. Suspending the H-1B programme risks losing future tech leaders who will help create the jobs America needs to bolster its economy.
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