One of the most pressing questions Silicon Valley leaders will want answered at their Wednesday meeting with President-elect Donald Trump is whether his administration will clamp down on the immigration policies that technology companies have come to rely on.
You only have to look at the executive boards of some of the world’s fastest growing companies to see the contribution immigrants have made. According to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy, immigrants founded more than half (51%) of the current crop of US-based startups valued at more than $1bn.
All of this could be under threat if we are to take some of the comments the Trump campaign made in the run-up to the election at face value. The outspoken candidate claimed that Mark Zuckerberg’s push for specialist H1B visas (the main visa used to hire foreign talent to tech companies) was a threat to jobs for American women and minorities. Meanwhile, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon suggested that Asians have too much power in Silicon Valley.
About a dozen members of Silicon Valley’s elite – including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg – will meet with Trump in New York. The meeting is likely to provide an opportunity for them to highlight their concerns and priorities with the incoming administration.
Trump was critical of Silicon Valley business practices during his campaign – from wanting Apple to stop making phones in China to saying Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post to exert political power and avoid paying taxes.
“If you look at the history of Silicon Valley, it’s clear that drawing on immigrants has been a big part of the vitality, creativity and success of that entrepreneurial melange,” said Marjory Blumenthal, senior policy analyst at Rand Corporation.
The incoming administration is leaving some highly skilled tech workers nervous about their immigration status. “I am worried that I might have to go back to India,” said Sandeep Purwar, the founder and CEO of the tech recruiting platform JobAnts. He came into the US on an H1B visa but has since gotten a green card. He’s applying for citizenship as soon as possible to secure his position in the US.
He hopes that Trump’s pro-business stance will outshine his anti-immigration rhetoric.
“During his campaign, a lot of his talk about building a wall and sending back immigrants was to attract and energize the rightwing Republican base. But he’s a businessman. He knows the importance of having manpower in this country, so hopefully he’ll be softening on these policies.”
Zoltan Istvan, a futurist who ran as an independent presidential candidate, said: “It’s in our very best interest to steal the best engineers from over the world and have them live in America,.”
Since the election, the Internet Association, a group of technology companies that includes Facebook, Google, Twitter, Netflix and Amazon, has written to Trump asking him to support a sector that accounts for 6% of the economy by increasing immigration.
The letter echoes the demands of Fwd.us, a lobby group set up by tech leaders including Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt in 2013 to support immigration reform and expand the H1B visa program, which admits 65,000 workers and another 20,000 graduate student workers each year.
While Silicon Valley relies on H1B to bring in skilled foreign workers, the immigration scheme has also been exploited in a way that drives down wages and in some cases displaces American jobs, said Daniel Costa, of the Economic Policy Institute.
Tech companies such as Microsoft and Google typically use H1B as intended – to hire skilled, well-paid foreign workers in short supply. The companies then help them get green cards so they can extend their stays. However, there are also large contracting firms such as Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services that use the visas to deploy lower-paid contractors that critics say rarely end up with visas.
This exploitation of the system could be fixed by making sure contractors pay H1B workers a fair wage and advertise all jobs to US workers first, Costa explained. But Silicon Valley tech companies have even lobbied against this. Why? “It’s very possible they have shadow workforces staffed with people from outsourcing companies and they don’t want their labor costs to increase,” Costa said.
All of the talk about immigrants taking American jobs ignores another looming challenge: robots or artificial intelligence taking American jobs.
“Automation, not immigration, is the bigger issue. AI, software and robots are just starting to destroy the very core economy of America,” Istvan said.
“You could try to put legal restrictions on automation but then you can’t create new jobs. It’s a much bigger issue.”
According to Sebastian Thrun, the German-born founder of the educational organization Udacity and a former Google employee, automation won’t eliminate jobs, but will create very different ones. Policymakers and workers have no choice but to embrace the change. “If you try to re-create the past we will be left behind,” he said.
He argues that automation will free people from the drudgery of repetitive office work and allow them to become inventors. “We’ll enter an age of unparalleled creativity and innovation.”
For Trump’s administration, this will mean shifting away from some of the anti-science rhetoric in order to make America a superpower in science and technology. “We are in a scientific Olympic Games with China, so let’s win this,” said Istvan, who has applied to be an adviser to Trump.
“I just hope the vice-president [Mike Pence, who isopposed to abortion rights and doesn’t believe in evolution] and other more religious candidates don’t get in the way of things like genetic editing or artificial intelligence, which crosses a few religious lines.”
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