For years Washington has debated the fate of a subset of the immigration picture: the flow of trained, sought-after foreign tech workers allowed entry under a visa lottery program. Now the Trump administration is stepping in with a sledgehammer to lower the numbers and tighten the rules.
It’s a long anticipated gesture from a nativist White House that’s bidding to reduce immigration, especially on the eve of an election. But there are also real problems with the specialized entry permits known as H-1B visas. The Bay Area’s sprawling tech world has a ringside seat in the brewing situation.
The Trump plan devised by the Department of Labor and Homeland Security agency will firmly restrict the prized visas doled out by the luck of the draw. The current lottery reserves 20,000 slots for applicants with a master’s degree or more and opens the remaining 65,000 visas to all applicants
Under the proposed rules, foreign workers would need to be paid more, their credentials linked more directly to stateside jobs and permitted stays would be shortened in some cases. And one more thing: The new guidelines would cut the numbers by a third, predicted Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli. That estimate comes on top of a prior surge in rejections of tech visa requests.
The plan requires that overseas applicants have a college degree, not simply work experience, to qualify for visas. That could screen out the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, who didn’t graduate from college, from coming from overseas. The changes also zero in on third-party hiring agencies with compliance rules and a limit of a one-year visa in place of the present three years. It’s anything but a welcome sign to outside talent.
Slamming the brakes on H-1B programs is sold as protection for American workers seeking the same jobs. With COVID-19 devastating the economy and a jobless rate stuck at 7.9%, the Trump team is offering both a solution and a scapegoat. “America’s immigration laws should put American workers first,” said Patrick Pizzella, the deputy secretary of labor who took part in presenting the plan.
That message has gone out from the early days of the administration. But a package of changes to halt H-1B visas announced in June and tied to the COVID outbreak were stopped by a federal court decision in San Francisco last week. Now comes a new strategy. It involves an initiative that doesn’t need major review or public comment and could take effect quickly. That shortened schedule, though, will invite yet another court challenge that could stall the latest announcement.
Beyond legal gambits, there are undeniable problems. The tech guest workers in some instances are underpaid compared to U.S. employees pounding out code down the hall. Lining up foreign workers has led to a small group of personnel agencies that control the market. But the broad stroke plan detailed this week doesn’t just go after these instances. It goes after the entire H-1B program in a wholesale way.
Demonizing foreign workers is once again in this administration’s playbook. Yet there is a defensible need by the tech sector for these workers with a majority coming from India.
Should the visa limits stick, there’s sure to be reaction from tech businesses. They’ll ship jobs overseas, disrupting work here and adding to employment rolls elsewhere. That’s a self-defeating outcome and the very opposite of the announced goals to save American jobs. Both the tech industry lobbying group TechNet and the employer group Bay Area Council have weighed in against the visa changes.
The visa restrictions capture the harsh White House view on immigration: chase away outsiders in the name of self-preservation. In this case, as with other border controls, it’s illogical and myopic. This country has thrived on arriving talent who supplement the strengths on hand. Foreign tech workers are no exception and should be welcomed, not spurned.
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