As the world grapples with the implications of President Donald Trump’s order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, a leaked draft of another executive order is raising concerns in Silicon Valley that tech industry immigrants could be the administration’s next target.
The draft proposal is vague, and it’s unclear how heavily the Trump administration is considering the proposal or whether or not the president will even sign it. “It didn’t have a lot of teeth,” said Graham Adair immigration lawyer Sam Adair, who pointed out that the order hasn’t been signed despite being leaked almost two weeks ago.
The proposal does make on definitive point: Trump wants to "prioritize the protection of American workers." One way to do this, some legislators say, is to make it more expensive to hire foreign workers. One bill proposed by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa would raise the salary floor for visa-dependent companies (a group that includes Facebook, per Reuters) to $100,000; a separate bill proposed by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren would make the floor even higher, starting at least $130,000 a year.
In the past, Trump has called high-skilled visa holders "temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay." But the reality is, many high-skilled immigrants working for major US tech companies are already earning at least $100,000 a year. More than 90% of 2015 visa applications for software developer positions filed by Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft paid more than $100,000 a year (at Uber, that figure was around 84%),* according to an analysis by JobsInTech.io, a searchable database of over 7 million applications for various visas dating back to 2000. Meanwhile, immigrants working for the India-based staffing agencies that are historically awarded the most visas and would be hardest hit by such a regulatory crackdown are earning much less.
At employers like Wipro, Tata, and Infosys — which together in 2015 applied for over 62,000 work visas — less than 1% of visa applications for software developer positions paid more than $100,000. The average salary at each company was closer to $65,000 — the prevailing wage companies sponsoring work visas have been required to pay since 1998.
Apple, Uber, Infosys, and Tata declined requests for comment on this story. Similar queries to Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Wipro went unanswered.
Trump’s goal is to create more jobs for Americans, and to stamp out the fraud that has has come to light at places like Disney and University of California, San Francisco, where American employees were found to have trained their own foreign-born replacements before being laid off. Though his work-visa order hasn’t been signed, proposals in Congress have already given the India-based consultancies a good idea of its possible impact. Lofgren’s reform proposal shocked India this week, as tech consultancies there lost an estimated $7 billion in value; they plan to meet with President Trump to plead their case later this month.
If those India-based companies are forced to shut down their US operations because of high costs, some say US companies will simply outsource the work foreign programmers have been doing.
"There's a lot of people here on H-1Bs doing lower level tech jobs that, if they go, would leave a huge gap in the workforce," said Adair. "These jobs aren't going to go away, but they may not necessarily stay in the US. Companies will look to move those jobs overseas."
That concern was echoed by Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley. “There's a belief that if H-1B is capped tomorrow, all the American companies would hire only Americans and stop using H-1B,” an H-1B visa holder at a large tech firm explained. “That's wrong.”
Immigration lawyers who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they don't expect any major changes to the high-skilled visa program before 2017 applications open on April 1. Even so, companies like Amazon and Microsoft are reportedly considering moving immigrants to offices in Vancouver. While Adair said he doesn’t know of any companies currently pursuing that strategy, he does have individual clients have raised the possibility. Kaz Nejatian, a Y Combinator grad who used to work in Canada’s immigration department, has been actively tweeting about startups opening positions there to foreign workers in the US. Meanwhile, TechCrunch reports that a new company is selling $6,000 relocation packages that include a one way ticket to Vancouver.
Proposed reforms for the work-visa program may not end up being hugely expensive for top-tier US tech firms — but increased scrutiny of the program and general tightening of immigration rules nonetheless create unpleasant uncertainty for foreign-born workers living in the US.
“I have clients right now who came to the US, got graduate degrees and really good six-figure jobs,” Adair told BuzzFeed News. “We've applied for the H-1B in past years and they haven't gotten it, and if they don't get it this year, they’re going to have to leave the United States. That's potentially pushing out somebody who's making over $100,000 a year and saying, ‘Hey look, you got a PhD here, you got a master's degree here, you're making good money and paying taxes, and we don’t want you here anymore.”
*Not all US-based tech companies pay visa holders as well as Apple or Google; at firms like IBM, Intel, and Qualcomm, between 24 and 40% of applications filed for software developer positions paid $100,000 or higher.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O’Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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