Engineers, tech firms blast Trump’s worker visa restrictions

President Trump's order to extend H1B visa worker restrictions to the end of 2020 provoked strong criticism from a broad array of tech companies, as well as engineers who took to online comment boards to vent their concerns. (Getty Images)

Tech companies and engineers from abroad working in the U.S. blasted President Trump’s newest visa restrictions issued this week affecting immigrants working temporarily in the U.S.

One engineer posting anonymously on the website Blind showed the impact of the president’s actions on a personal level: “With the recent executive order and everything, seriously considering moving elsewhere. I am on H1B right now have my I-140 approved.  I do not wish to go back home to India and live there for a myriad reasons…Is it worth continuing to live in the USA if I am not really hoping for citizenship?” Blind offers employee referrals to top tech companies working from an anonymous network of 3.6 million professionals primarily in tech.

A survey of 3,100 professionals conducted on Blind’s website found that 53% are in the U.S. on work visas and one-third of that group (totaling about 500) foresee restricted travel or career opportunities as a result of the latest Trump restrictions. A total of 391 respondents said they would “look for a job in a new country.”

Blind found that more than 60% of the survey respondents working at Amazon and Facebook were here on a work visa.  At chipmaker Intel, 63% of 46 survey respondents said they are here on a work visa while 19% said they would try to find a job at a different company and 43% said they would look for a job in their home country.

In April, President Trump signed an immigration proclamation intended to limit people outside of the US seeking to legally migrate to the U.S., which was set to lapse.  On Monday, an official presidential proclamation extended that order until the end of 2020 and expanded it to include some guest worker visas. The ban on worker visas and restrictions on new green cards is expected to keep as many as 525,000 foreign workers out of the country for the rest of the year, officials said.

The president explained the order in light of expanding unemployment and the number of Americans out of work due to shutdowns with COVID-19. 

“Under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” President Trump wrote in the order.

Just about every major technology company in the U.S. issued concerns about the order, ranging from Google to Twitter to Facebook to Microsoft.  The Information Technology Industry Council said the administration’s approach will have a “dangerous impact on the economic recovery,” noting that immigrants working in the tech industry are vital to the COVID-19 response.

Intel issued a similar position on Twitter without naming President Trump or referencing the latest administration move: 

“To continue its leadership in the fiercely competitive global semiconductor industry, the U.S. must be able to attract and retain highly trained and specialized engineers and scientists from all over the world. There is a shortage of such talent in the U.S., and foreign national graduates of U.S. advanced degree programs are essential to closing this skills gap. The breadth and strength of America’s advanced degree programs, and the opportunities we afford high-skilled graduates, are critical parts of this country’s long-standing innovation advantage.”

Similar sentiments were expressed in anonymous Blind comments. One commenter asked, “Shouldn’t companies want to hire H-1B? …They’re more loyal, usually from top schools, can do the work just as well as their coworkers. What am I missing?”

Another commenter said, “I would wait out till elections. If Trump wins again, then will try and move to Europe.”

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, called the latest presidential order “very bad on many levels” in an email to Fierce Electronics.  Limiting visas will mean tech roles go unfilled and product development will slow down, he argued, adding,“I’d guess some viable projects may get canceled altogether as a result.”

The ban will also move qualified workers to seek employment in other countries, as some Blind commenters pointed out. “With so much intense international competition for tech these days, pushing these folks to seek other opportunities means you are helping the competition get talent they otherwise probably wouldn’t have had,” Gold added.

In the past, the argument has been made that too many H1B workers would force down the pay for more senior workers, but Gold said that was mostly untrue.  “There was intense competition and even with H1B, many jobs remained unfilled,” Gold said. “I think the wage suppression argument was more about jobs going out of the country with outsourcing than with H1B effects.”

H1B visa provisions have been controversial for years. Tech companies have staunchly defended the visas while President Trump and White House aide Stephen Miller  have pushed for limits on worker visas on the basis that they harm employment prospects for U.S. citizens.

H1B visas are temporary and the typical H1B lasts for three years.   The American Immigration Council has supported the visas and has posted a fact sheet on its web site.

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