The vicissitudes of the H-1B visa have proved unnerving for Silicon Valley tech bosses and immigrant workers alike. What kind of changes are taking place as a result of the uncertainty?
As the Trump administration continues to tighten the screws on the hotly debated H-1B visa, the tangible effects of policy changes suddenly altering the flow of tech talent are becoming more readily apparent.
The programme allows highly skilled tech workers from foreign countries (primarily from India and China) to live and work in the US. It has become the backbone both of US-based Indian IT outsourcing companies and the global capital of the thriving tech industry that is Silicon Valley, where more than half of the tech workforce is foreign born.
Trump administration continues to turn the heat up
For quite some time, prospective tech workers have begun to suspect that the ‘American Dream’ is crumbling before their eyes, suffering a death from 1,000 cuts as the Trump administration continues to take aim at the H-1B programme in various ways.
The administration has repeatedly deferred decisions on the H4 visa, which allows the spouses of H-1B visa holders to live and work in the US.
Though not directly affecting the H-1B, it traps H-1B spouses (90pc of whom are women) in what has been called “golden cages”, blocking them from putting to use any of the qualifications they gained in their home countries.
For a long time, H4 holders didn’t even qualify for a social security number until an Obama-era ruling in 2015 that allowed H4 visa spouses to apply for worker permits while awaiting green cards. It allowed spouses to use their skills, add to the household income and generally lead more fulfilled lives with a career dimension, but Trump has been mulling over a decision to cut it for some time.
Invariably, if the programme gets cut, H-1B holders will be tempted to return home even if their own visa status is secure, to accommodate their spouses and also as a possible response to suddenly reverting to single-income status.
As recently as last week, a new policy memorandum from the US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) granted visa application adjudicators the discretion to outright deny visa petitions without issuing either a Request for Evidence or Notice to Deny. In practical terms, this means that applicants no longer have the opportunity to submit additional paperwork to back up their application. The new directive is, according to USCIS, designed to prevent applicants submitting “frivolous” applications in order to buy themselves time, but will essentially mean that applicants lose rights to appeal denials or make their case.
Where will the tech talent go?
First-generation immigrants create as many as 25pc of new firms in the US and more than 40pc in states such as California and New York, where immigrants also populate some of the world’s largest tech hubs.
The mass exodus that is happening now and will likely continue to happen will, many claim, drain the US of innovation and job opportunities in the long term. This drain will likely flow back into India, where the lion’s share of foreign-born unicorn start-up entrepreneurs hail from.
India has for years been reported as one of the fastest-growing world economies, and the World Bank recently forecast that its GDP should grow in rates exceeding 7pc over the next few years. Coupled with the fact that India has the third-largest start-up ecosystem in the world, according to Indian IT lobbying group NASSCOM, it would seem that this flow of talent will further strengthen the country’s position on the global economic stage.
Some H-1B holders are opting to move next door to Canada in lieu of a homecoming. Canada, in contrast to India, has become friendlier to visa applicants, especially those possessing tech skills that are sorely needed to keep the Canadian economy chugging along.
Silicon Valley’s moral imperative
Tech behemoths such as Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon for a long time have attempted to stay politically agnostic in the public sphere as they ascend the staircase to heaven that is their seemingly limitless scalability.
Yet recently, this dream of remaining above the fray has begun to wither and die a death, protracted across an endless stream of high-profile scandals and increasing pressure to speak out against the political turmoil in the US.
The shocking revelations of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal left Mark Zuckerberg sitting bug-eyed in a congressional hearing attempting to explain how an idea born from his time at Harvard mutated into something so large and uncontrollable that it has been used to compromise democracies.
Soon after, Google’s involvement in the controversial Maven AI drone programme led to resignations in protest. Similar protests have been brewing at Microsoft, where employees have decried the company’s contracts with ICE, the government agency that has played a role in the largely reviled system forcibly separating immigrant families at the border upon arrival in the US.
Silicon Valley tech CEOs recently added their voices to the chorus of public opprobrium that has reached a crescendo in recent months about the ‘abhorrent’ new US border policy. The mounting evidence that in-demand employees will not want to work for companies that don’t espouse political views aligning with their own cannot be discounted as one of the many motivations for doing this.
While these bosses tend to stay quiet on the H-1B visa, they privately pump millions into lobbying for its expansion. Their desire to do so silently likely stems from the fact that in the eyes of many domestic workers, the H-1B programme is a tool for companies to push out workers and replace them with cheap, foreign labour, meaning any mention can often attract bad PR.
The question of the extent to which the H-1B programme is abused is one that has been hotly debated for some time, including on this website. People have made compelling arguments both for and against the idea that the programme has significant effects on the economic ecosystem, and the reality is that it is difficult to determine the validity of the claim.
What is easy enough to conclude, however, is that there is a cynical lip service culture within Silicon Valley, meaning that while some are willing to publicly throw their weight around causes important to the majority, they will ultimately only attempt to inspire material changes in ways that will benefit them.
Even though there are many out there who will be happy to hear that these companies are working towards expanding the H-1B visa programmes, they don’t seem to be particularly concerned with addressing the instances where the programme does in fact lead to exploitation.