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Foreign tech workers and students bail on businesses

Friday, June 23, 2017

Immigrants have a tremendous presence in the U.S. tech sector. A high percentage of the country’s most successful tech firms have at least one immigrant founder. Moreover, Silicon Valley increasingly relies upon a steady flow of foreign engineers and programmers to fill positions left open by a lack of qualified workers from the United States.
Currently, the typical path for a tech worker to enter the U.S. is under an employer- sponsored H-1B visa. Foreign graduates from American universities may apply to work for several months under an F-1 visa Optional Practical Training, which permits work related to a major area of study.
But the results of last November’s presidential election have cast a pall on this long-standing relationship between skilled foreign workers and the American tech sector. Foreign tech workers, as well as students, are bailing on small businesses and start-ups due to uncertainty about their future visa status.
On the campaign trail and after his November victory, the president created considerable uncertainty about the future of such visas. Despite having hired H-1B workers for his own business, he harbors particular vitriol for the program, having called it “very, very bad for workers.”
Last spring, Trump softened a bit, saying, “We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in.”
Later, though, he resolved to “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first… No exceptions.”  Unfortunately, this position does not take into account that H-1B employees are professional-level, specialty occupation employees who are paid, at minimum, a prevailing wage or above.
The uncertainty of the administration’s stance has had an effect on foreign tech workers and students. Many have abandoned plans to create businesses or join a start-up in favor of going to work for firms that have greater legal firepower, should their visa status come into question.
According to CNN Money, a Silicon Valley recruiter has “seen engineers who are on H-1Bs tell us that they're specifically looking to move to a new company that's larger and has more resources than the company they're currently at. Earlier startups can't offer [legal resources] in the way that a Facebook or Google can."
With the roles that foreign students and workers, as well as immigrants, have played in creating start-ups in the tech industry, this is bad news for the sector. Not only does the new administration’s unclear stance create fear and uncertainty among talented foreign workers, it is beginning to stifle innovation in one of the economy’s most crucial segments.

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