If nothing else, Donald Trump’s triple flip-flop on whether to support visas for highly skilled foreign workers made clear how politically fraught is the issue of immigration reform. As tech company giants sponsor major lobbying efforts to increase the number of U.S. visas granted for all, their quieter agenda is serving the growing needs of immigration reform for their own sector, which needs highly skilled experts to bring innovation or fill vacancies for which too few Americans qualify.
During the March 3 CNN candidate debate,Trump announced that he had changed his views on immigration, specifically on the H-1B visa, which allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in specialized fields like technology, engineering, and science. “We need highly skilled people in this country and if we don’t do that, we will get them in,” Trump said. Less than an hour later, his campaign released a statement that not only withdrew that remark, but denounced the H-1B program as “neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay.” The campaign further noted that foreign workers were taking jobs away from American citizens and harming the domestic economy.
On the Democratic side, rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been more consistent on the issue than their Republican opponents. Both have repeatedly championed general immigration reform, and an increase in H-1B in particular. They have also expressed support for the tech sector’s growing influence in the immigration conversation. Clinton, in a 2007 speech to Silicon Valley executives, reaffirmed her commitment to the H-1B visa and to increasing the current cap. “Foreign skilled workers contribute greatly to what we have to do in being innovators,” she said to emphatic, resounding applause.Other Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls seem to be just as ambivalent over whether raising the visa cap, the annual total of visas granted, will help or harm the American worker.
“We need highly skilled people in this country and if we don’t do that, we will get them in,” Trump said.
Trump’s Republican rival, Ted Cruz, has consistently pushed for a stricter immigration policy. He has an unforgiving stance on illegal entry and residence, unsoftened by his own–legal–immigrant heritage as the son of a working class Cuban. At the same time, Cruz at first said he favored quintupling the number of visas to be granted in the H-1B program. But, like his campaign rival, he later retracted support, saying he opposed any increase in the number of immigrants offered entrance to the country during the annual visa lottery. In a January interview with CNN, Cruz said that too many employers abused the program by “No. 1, bringing in people who are not high-skilled, bringing in medium- and low-skilled information technology workers and then firing American workers and, adding insult to injury, forcing the American workers to train their foreign replacements.”
This year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that by 2020, the United States will have 1.2 million openings in the tech professions alone that require at least a bachelor’s degree.Yet despite this opportunity for economic and technological growth, at its current pace, the country will not produce even half the number with the necessary pedigree. This disparity is forcing tech companies to pursue foreign-born talent and to intensify lobbying efforts for less fettered visa restrictions. Through the millions of dollars the industry has committed to lobbying groups, the sector has been advocating for a comprehensive reform that will raise the visa cap for all comers and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States of all skill levels.
But among others who advocate for low- and middle- skilled visa applicants, tech’s growing role in Washington has not been entirely welcomed.“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . . robust job growth . . . And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job,” said Jim Austin, editor of Science Careers, to the Washington Post. “Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.”
“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . . robust job growth . . . And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job,” said Jim Austin, editor of Science Careers, to the Washington Post.
But to the tech sector, the need for a cap increase has reached critical proportions. Last April, the federal government granted visas to fewer than half of the 233,000 highly skilled foreign workers who applied for employment positions in the United States. Through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s lottery system, only 65,000 applicants for the H-1B are randomly selected to receive visas in the general H-1B category and another 20,000 can receive visas under a special advanced degree exemption. Over the past five years, demand has increased exponentially. In 2011, the H-1B visa lottery capped in 300 days. Last year, it took less than a week.
“People may think technological innovation is driven by precocious college dropouts at startup companies, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg,” said Adams Nager, an economic policy analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “In reality, America’s innovators are far more likely to be immigrants with advanced degrees who have paid their dues through years of work in large companies.”
Although there are many tech-sponsored lobbying groups, the most prominent are FWD.us, the advocacy group of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and TechNet, which is backed by the CEO of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, and Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt. In 2011, the two efforts rallied $50 million from industry supporters in only four months. While FWD.us has one goal—to socially unite around immigration reform—TechNet is more open-ended. It positions itself as “the voice of the innovation economy” and supports a number of public policy initiatives toward that end.Despite the differences in their mission statements, however, both lobbying groups agree that comprehensive immigration reform is paramount for domestic economic and technological growth.
Since beginning their efforts five years ago, the two groups have been lobbying for several changes in immigration statutes. Beyond their support for raising the visa cap, both also advocate for a transparent pathway to citizenship. Essentially, these tech advocacy institutions want it to be simpler to become a U.S. citizen. The thinking is that by uncomplicating the path to citizenship for current and prospective immigrants, foreign talent will be attracted to stay in the United States without the constant threat of being forced out.
The current system also makes the verification of employment unduly complex, which, the lobbyists argue, dissuades talented foreign applicants from completing the process, as does the difficulties they face in trying to bring their families with them. FWD.us is clear that its proposals includes undocumented foreign tech workers who are already in the United States. “Every person should have the chance to contribute to our economy and society. It doesn’t matter where a person comes from or who he or her parents are: creativity, talent, and the willingness to work hard are what count,” the FWD.us website reads.
“Every person should have the chance to contribute to our economy and society. It doesn’t matter where a person comes from or who he or her parents are: creativity, talent, and the willingness to work hard are what count,” the FWD.us website reads.
Michael Feldman, FWD.us’s deputy press secretary, attributes the tech sector’s success in raising funds to its celebrity founders. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying and campaign spending, shows $9.8 million in lobbying efforts attributable to Facebook as of 2015. The company’s contribution increased eightfold between 2008 and 2012. Zuckerberg has published editorials, done on-air interviews, and publicly announced donations from tech individuals and companies to the wider immigration reform cause, which Feldman said has contributed to FWD.us’s fundraising success. “We have been fortunate to have consistent and ample funding,” Feldman said. “We want to post about every dollar we make because this reform is vital to the growth of the social stability of the US. While we want to increase our innovation economy, we are fundamentally an advocacy group for equality.”
Not everyone agrees. To those outside the tech sector, the billions the industry has invested in trying to raise the H-1B visa cap is a hindrance to other, more inclusive immigration efforts, and to the national economy overall. As Hal Salzman, a Rutgers University professor, explained, “The debate over guest worker programs is largely based on anecdotal evidence and testimonials from employers, rather than solid evidence. Economic Policy Institute report that asserts there is no shortage of domestic STEM workers— those in the specialized fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “Our examination shows that the STEM shortage in the United States is largely overblown,” Salzman said. “Guest worker programs are in need of reform, but any changes should make sure that guest workers are not lower-paid substitutes for domestic workers.” The report showed that 80 percent of workers hired under the H-1B program received less compensation for the same work when compared when American employees.
Tech specialists argue in turn that although their advocacy only highlights one visa category, this sector’s progress and capacity to innovate has become essential—fundamental, even—to the U.S. economy’s overall growth and prosperity. They point to the innovations of U.S.-based foreign talent— like the founders of Uber, Google, Yahoo—who have been essential to the industry’s development since the start.
Both the internet and the U.S. Immigration Act, and its H-1B provision, were born in 1990. And while the next 25 years has brought no change in immigration policy, the tech industry has grown immeasurably.
George Borjas is an economist and professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who specializes in labor economy and immigration. Although he does not favor immigration reform in the tech sector, he knows how crucial the 1990 act has been for domestic, economic, and technological progress. His colleagues at the Kennedy School often debate how much economic growth can be attributed to immigration and foreign talent. “I can’t imagine the growth we would see if the current process where to change;” he said, “but I am sure we would see a change.”
Borjas broke down the complications of the application process for the H-1B. A foreign can apply for the visa starting on April 1 of any fiscal year. US employers must prove to the federal government that the domestic market needs the applicant for business success. One step in the process requires the employer to complete a labor condition application, an LCA that the Department of Labor must certify. It states that the employment of the foreign-born worker will not negatively affect the wages and working conditions of a similarly employed US citizen worker.
Proving a foreign born worker is more qualified than his or her American counterpart, however, is not simple. Feldman categorized the application as “subjective,” where H-1B hopefuls and their potential employers often make critical mistakes that can hinder that applicant’s prospects of even entering the lottery pool. The American Immigration Lawyers Association released recommendations for preparing a “bulletproof” application, starting with wage analysis that proves that it is fiscally more beneficial to sponsor a foreign worker over a domestic one. “The many steps in between are loaded with potential liability,” the report said. “An employer may not realize this liability until years after certification in the context of an audit or investigation.” If admitted, workers can remain in the United States for up to six years.
Despite the complications of the process, innovative industries are relying more and more on H-1B workers. Margie McHugh, director of the National Center of Immigrant Integration Policy, points to declining interest from Americans in pursuing the STEM fields as the reason for why foreign talent has become so critical. Even half the post-doctorates in science and engineering at U.S. universities are international students. The Information Technology Industry Council, for example, released a report that found that in just two years the U.S. will face a shortage of more than 223,000 STEM workers. “The U.S. is investing in people they are then essentially throwing away,” McHugh said. “The tech sector is taking such a strong stance because we need them. Foreign workers do not displace their American counterparts, they complement them.”
The report also says that in the decade between 1990 and 2000, immigrant innovation helped domestic GDP grow by 2.4 percent, even though foreign born workers only accounted for 16 percent of the total labor force at the time. That fact triggered the political involvement of Silicon Valley and its support for politicians that aligned with its own views.Google Inc. spent over $16.8 million in lobbying efforts, but had only donated $180,000 to political causes in the preceding ten years. Senator Marco Rubio’s failed presidential nomination campaign tried to capitalize on tech’s political interest, siding with its call to reform. He campaigned for a more lenient immigration policy to foster the “new economy.”
“The world is changing, and it’s changing faster than ever. Innovation in and of itself is a key part of our economy,” Rubio told representatives of several internet start-ups at a meeting in New York City last October. “It took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users. It took Candy Crush one year to reach 100 million users.”
Among the major goals of FWD.us’s advocacy efforts, website outlines four major focus points that will help the U.S. economy: secure the U.S. borders so that law enforcement can focus on more serious offenses; aid families to secure their economic future; provide a pathway to citizenship; and replace the LCA with an e-verify system to “encourage the admittance of future workers, promote innovation, and satisfy the demands of the domestic workforce.”
“The world is changing, and it’s changing faster than ever. Innovation in and of itself is a key part of our economy,” Rubio told representatives of several internet start-ups at a meeting in New York City last October. “It took the telephone 75 years to reach 100 million users. It took Candy Crush one year to reach 100 million users.”
Feldman said just allowing DREAMers to become citizens would add a total of $329 billion to the American economy.
The group of Silicon Valley executives who founded TechNet in 1997 also included the former CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers. At the time, the organization saw its mission as educating government leaders on the growing importance of their sector and promoting the tech-led “innovation ecosystem.” In addition to executives from Cisco, Google, and LinkedIn, its membership includes Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and other technology giants. Its immigration reform efforts remain firmly nonpartisan.
TechNet’s president and CEO, Linda Moore, spoke at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February about high-skilled immigration. She advocated strongly for raising the H-1B visa cap and increasing the number of green cards available for worker immigration. Both actions, she said, “would strengthen our nation’s global economy competitiveness and promote future job creation in the United States.”
Feldman said FWD.us has been made headway with the Immigration Innovation Act, the legislation the lobbying firm has been trying to get past since it was proposed early in 2015. “We have been able to really bring awareness to how critical the United States needs foreign talent, he said.
The act, also known as the I-squared or the S.744 Act, was proposed by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and sponsored with monetary support from Zuckerberg. It would raise the yearly cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to up to 115,000 and exempt people with advanced STEM degrees. It would eliminate the yearly per-country caps now in force. It would ease other restrictions on foreign students, too, saying they represent a “dual intent” and should not be penalized for wanting to stay in the U.S. after they complete their degrees. Feldman explains that this bill, if enacted, would also benefit the personal lives of visa holders by allowing their spouses to hold jobs in the United States, thus making the transition to American life that much more enticing.
The Congressional Budget office estimates that enacting the the bill “will boost real GDP by 3.3 percent in 2023 and by 5.4 percent in 2033.” That translates to about $700 billion in 2023 and $1.4 trillion in 2033 with today’s inflation. And with reports showing that every H-1B visa holder creates 1.83 American jobs, the tech industry’s lobbying efforts are becoming increasingly vocal.
McHugh, of the national immigration policy institute, stresses that while her coalition appreciates the funding the tech sector has been providing efforts, they also understand that what drives the industry’s support is not passion is not immigration reform per se but i“the threat of falling behind, or losing technological inventions to other countries.”
The Congressional Budget office estimates that enacting the the bill “will boost real GDP by 3.3 percent in 2023 and by 5.4 percent in 2033.” That translates to about $700 billion in 2023 and $1.4 trillion in 2033 with today’s inflation.
McHugh emphasized the key role that immigrants play in economic and professional tech growth, a view that new research by the National Foundation for American Policy also supports. The non-profit, non-partisan research organization studied 87 private U.S. startup companies that were valued over $1 billion as of 2016. Of these, 44 of them, or more than half, were founded by foreign-born talent. Over 70 percent of the 87 had key executives with international backgrounds. Furthermore, the research found, foreign-born founders “have created an average of approximately 760 jobs per company in the United States.” This estimates a collective value of about $160 billion for the 44 immigrant-founded companies. That’s almost half the stock market worth of Russia and of Mexico.
Despite the American immigrant mosaic, the push to attract immigrants to help the U.S. maintain a competitive edge globally is a relatively new phenomenon. McHugh attributes this new push to the way the tech industry and immigration policy have developed in tandem. “They were both revolutionary for their time in the United States,” McHugh explained. “It seemed natural for them to progress together, and now that tech-industry is pushing to make it equal again for mutual growth.”
Likewise, as technology has infused American culture, so has the immigration debate. The U.S. Census Bureau counts for 41.1 million Americans as legal foreign-born citizens, a number that has quadrupled since 1970. Of that total, 16.5% are STEM-related professionals.
Lucas Matheson, the founder and CEO of Pinshape, did not make that cut. After a participating for five months in a California incubator program, his visa application and that of his partners and their significant others, all were denied. “These foreign-born workers are not just one of two people that come into the US and become CEOs of huge tech companies,” Matheson said. “When you deny the every-man engineer a visa, you are hindering a greater workforce.”
Their company shepherds a digital 3D printing community that exemplifies the type of “every-man” entrepreneurial spirit tech CEOs like Zuckerberg are trying to attract to the United States. Though they admit Pinshape was never supposed to happen, the backgrounds of the company’s three Canadian CEOs —Matheson, Nick Scwinghamer, and Andre Yanes— made the entrepreneurship almost inevitable.
Matheson was beginning a career in accounting and Schwinghamer was swamped with homework in a rigorous electrical engineering program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where Yanes, who had just gotten his undergraduate degree in computer science. He was working from his cramped studio apartment, using his skills to hack.
How they came to create their digital 3D printing community Pinshape is a tale for the annals of Internet startups. The site features an interactive marketplace that creates a open community for 3D designers and enthusiasts to interact. Since its inception in 2013, the company now has more than 40,000 users in over 165 countries. With a staff of only 10 employees, the company has finally seen profit this year.
The three founders all grew up near each other in Edmonton and their friendship brought them together as business partners. The idea to start a company together just seemed to happen one day as they walked home from the housewarming party of another childhood friend.
“We knew we always wanted to start a business,” Yanes said. “And one day without thinking I blurted, ‘Well, why don’t we make an affordable 3D printing company then.’”
That impulsive statement in 2013 led to an intensive year-long inception phase for Pinshape. The fundamental goal for the three twenty-somethings was simple: create an online community where producers of 3D art can showcase their wares and for consumers to be able to browse or shop online all in one place. In other words, a Pinterest for the 3D world.
Unsure of where to begin, the three took to the Internet to seek out other 3D printing websites to emulate. That’s when they found Thingiverse. A user-content generate digital design marketplace created in 2008. Thingiverse was the website to beat. After further research, the trio realized that Thingiverse lacked a fundamental feature: simple navigation.
“There was a period where we would go on Thingiverse everyday,” Yanes said. “ But it took us weeks to finally figure out all the features they offered. From their unorganized website, Pinshape started getting a more defined identity.”
Inspired by design flaws of Pinshape’s would-be competitor, Matheson decided to look for tech startup incubators in Canada. He realized that although the Pinshape teammates knew everything they didn’t want to be, the creators needed help to bring their plans to fruition. They happened on the American program 500Startups, a seed incubator known for its global reach and the funding and mentorship resources it provides. They instantly fell in love.
Schwinghamer said at the time, 500Startups had just announced its newest group “and every single one had a story similar to ours. We knew it was associated with the tech community in Silicon Valley, and decided to go for it,” To apply for 500Startups, Pinshape needed to come up with a mission statement and basic design logo.
Over the next three months, the partners focused on the application. They created a mission statement detailing a marketplace community where 3D printing enthusiasts and art connoisseurs could interact in an easy-to-navigate web format. They used Yanes’ computer science background to design a mock website to illustrate how designers would interact with consumers, and how consumers would find unique 3D art work without any access to a 3D printer.
“We were so obsessed with our application” said Yanes.
All their hard work paid off. In January 2014, only a few months after submitting their application, Pinshape received an invitation to interview for 500Startups’ “Batch 9.”
Matheson said all three of them flew down to Mountain View, California for the interview—15 minutes each with the 500 team. A few weeks later, an email announced their acceptance. “Nick and I quit our jobs the next day,” he said.
The Pinshape trio of founders and their families were given temporary work visas for their time in Mountain View, California, where 500Startups is based.“Honestly, we didn’t think anything of the visas at the time” Matheson said. “We were just excited to go to Silicon Valley and 500Startups.”
The partners then borrowed a car and made the three-day drive from Edmonton to Mountain View, California. “We bought a few mattresses at a factory outside Mountain View, strapped them to the roof of the car,” he said, “and pulled up to a two bedroom apartment we shared for the next five months.”
“We bought a few mattresses at a factory outside Mountain View, strapped them to the roof of the car,” Matheson said, “and pulled up to a two bedroom apartment we shared for the next five months.”
As part of “Batch 9,” Pinshape became one of 27 startups that qualified for seed funding and investment incubator status. Dave McClure, one of 500 Startups’ founding partners, said that throughout the program, the young Canadian entrepreneurs received $100,000 in funding and mentoring from four Silicon Valley professionals. They attended weekly meetings with the other startups in their “batch,” participated in workshops, and, along with their mentorship team, created the plan for the company.
“At 500Startups, we want to give each of our start up companies the resources necessary to create their conceptualized idea,” said McClure. “Pinshape had instant promise and its founders were very smart to use all the resources our company has to offer.”
At the beginning of the program, the level of professionalism the Canadians saw in the work of the other startups was thoroughly intimidating. “Everyone came in with an established website, contacts for potential investors,” Schwinghamer said, “and this attitude made us instantly insecure.”
But 500Startups immediately alleviated their entrepreneurial doubts. Beyond the seed money, there were the additional benefits from those months in Silicon Valley: a nurturing community that helped them connect with professionals in the tech industry, and access to an instant network of more than 100 company founders who had either completed the program or were involved in its mentorship process. McClure said the mentors picked mentors for Pinshape that could help them market their business and compete against other 3D printing digital platforms.
“After that first day, I knew we had to stay in the Silicon Valley,” Matheson said. “I called my immigration lawyer and said, ‘Do everything you can to let me staying in the U.S., I don’t care how much it costs. If I don’t stay in Silicon Valley my start-up will never be successful.”
His partners were not so convinced that staying in California was necessary. They argued that as an online company, Pinshape could really be run from anywhere. And yet, by the end of the program, they reconsidered. Staying in Silicon Valley seemed critical, but their immigration prospects were dim. The applications of all three, as well as their loved ones, were among 212,000 others in the 2014 H-1B visa lottery cap that year. Since the three men were university-educated, they had a higher chance of winning a visa under the advanced degree exemption. But since not all of their significant others had finished college, they fell further down the queue.
“Once we realized that, we knew we weren’t going to get it,” Schwinghamer interjected. Both Yanes and Matheson sighed.
The applications of all three, as well as their loved ones, were among 212,000 others in the 2014 H-1B visa lottery cap that year. Since the three men were university-educated, they had a higher chance of winning a visa under the advanced degree exemption. But since not all of their significant others had finished college, they fell further down the queue.
Sure enough, eleven months and $10,000 in legal fees later, all three were among the 60 percent of applicants rejected for H1-B visas that year. Pinshape and its founders moved back to Vancouver.
“When we first touched down in Vancouver we all thought it was the end of Pinshape,” Matheson said. “But now, I can safely say that if we had stayed in Silicon Valley, Pinshape wouldn’t exist.”
Yanes explained that if the outdated U.S. immigration system had not forced Pinshape out of Silicon Valley, the cut-throat culture of the tech bubble community in Northern California likely would have done the company in.
“We miss the passion that exists from people about their startups,” Yanes said. “It did motivate us to create our brand. But we needed to step back with the skills we learned at 500 Startups to push ourselves.”
Once they returned to Vancouver, they realized that thanks to the Internet, the 3D design demographic was shifting. The audience they were attracting online were no longer from the “tech geek” niche, but from a mainstream demographic; people who were interested in learning about 3D printing art but did not necessarily have the skills to do it themselves.
The benefit of this shift? Staying involved only with Silicon Valley’s tech niche would have limited the initial scope of what Pinshape’s reach could become. In Vancouver, the trio decided to launch, “Who are our 3D designers,” a survey system to understand what kind of audience they would be able to reach instantly. Their findings indicated that 44 percent were full-time printing designers, 36 percent were hobbyists, 14 percent were part-time enthusiasts, and 5 percent became interested in 3D printing through Pinshape’s open community outlook.
This new information gave the triumvirate the idea to think beyond what they learned at 500Startup. Still embracing the work ethic and advice from the program, they altered their fundamental algorithm to encourage user privacy and accessibility. Unlike other 3D printing websites that force designers to send their design files to the consumers to print independently, Pinshape created an algorithm that allowed a direct designer-to-printer experience. That increased intellectual property security. Of revenue the company generated last year, 65 percent came from users in the United States.
Now, coming into their second year in “the emerging Silicon Valley of the North,” Pinshape is grateful for their visa rejection letters.
Though Pinshape is just one example of a lost economic and technological advancement to another country, its founders story is common. With less than half of H-1B applications granted annually, many aspiring entrepreneurs are relocating to more welcoming nations.
And yet the loss of such a company seems to be at the heart of tech-backed immigration advocacy, it doesn’t assuage the criticism coming from other immigration reform communities.The National Association of College and Employers released statistics showing that salaries for workers with computer science backgrounds declined by 2.5 percent between 2012 and 2013. It makes opposers of the tech reform initiative question why that can happen in the midst of a chronic shortage, when salaries should increase.
Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco, acknowledges the narrow scope of the tech industry’s base interest in the immigration debate. “I think that’s a fair criticism of us,” Chambers said. “We haven’t been able to push that though.”
To Salzman, there is actually little evidence that supports the tech sector’s claim in a shortage of STEM workers. “They’re actually flooded with applications,” the Rutgers University professor said. “These companies are saying they’re not skilled enough, but that does not mean there is a professional shortage.” He believes the real motivation for wanting more foreign workers is wages. A 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey on the country’s average median wage found that engineers earned 2.5 times the median national wage.
“They’re actually flooded with applications,” the Rutgers University professor said. “These companies are saying they’re not skilled enough, but that does not mean there is a professional shortage.”
With an average yearly income of $88,720, this puts engineers at the top 5 percent of single income earners and the attraction of paying less to foreign workers must be great. “These large corporations are promising a pathway to citizenship,” Salzman said, “but they are not talking about how much they are going to actually pay these people.”
Salzman further argues that the tech industry’s position would actually damage the U.S. economy. “A rising supply of STEM labor depresses wages, harming American workers and discouraging students from entering the STEM fields,” he said. He does not think foreign workers would significantly enhance the U.S. competitive advantage internationally.
Proponents of tech involvement, however, insist the criticism is false. “Our economy is generating 122,000 new job openings for computer-related occupations each year, yet our schools are only graduating 51,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer science annually,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, which advocates immigration reform for skilled professionals. In an interview with VICE News, he said, “As for wages, the evidence consistently has shown that H-1B workers are paid more money, not less, than their American counterparts. And the research has also clearly demonstrated that high-skilled immigrants create additional American jobs once they get here to the United States.”
Hatch’s Immigration Innovation bill, however, paints a different picture. Once generating bipartisan support in the Senate, the proposal was blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee, where two other Republicans, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the bill posed a threat to future immigration as well as the current domestic workforce. In March of last year, the committee held a hearing called “Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled Americans Workers,” using testimony from Salzman, as well as from the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Ron Hira, a professor at Howard University and a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute challenges the use of data that shows a shortage in STEM-educated professionals. He too believes the tech sector is trying to saturate the labor force with foreign-talent on work visas who earn less than their American counterparts and thus can lower the wages in the STEM-related professions. “If foreign workers are willing to earn less and have the same talent as domestic workers, why wouldn’t you claim to have a shortage in talent to saturate your workforce with foreign workers?” said Hira. “It’s good business.”
Hira also testified alongside Salzman in the judiciary committee hearings last year. “High-skilled immigration has directly benefited my family enormously,” Hira said at the time. As the son of immigrants with an immigrant wife, he said, “the opportunity to testify is a professional honor but it is also very meaningful to me personally.”
His position is not against reform, per se, but about ensuring that reform privileges immigrants over corporations. “Congress and multiple Administrations have inadvertently created a highly lucrative business model of bringing in cheaper H-1B workers to substitute for Americans,” Hira told the committee, where the legislative has remained stalled.
“Congress and multiple Administrations have inadvertently created a highly lucrative business model of bringing in cheaper H-1B workers to substitute for Americans,” Hira told the committee, where the legislative has remained stalled.
Surprisingly, the tech sector has recently made headlines for laying off thousands of domestic specialized workers. Qualcomm, a wireless technology and innovation firm, is just one company that decried the worker shortage at the time it has reduced its American workforce. In a Qualcomm-underwritten conference last year, the company’s vice president, Alice Tornquist, urged the audience to fight for a raise in the visa cap to combat the dire shortage of STEM graduates. “Although our industry and other high-tech industries have grown exponentially,” said Tornquist, “our immigration system has failed to keep past.” But just two weeks after appealing for more foreign talent, Qualcomm announced it would cut its workforce by about 5,000 people and $1.4 billion in salaries, with two-thirds coming from STEM-related professions.
Hira summed up the response from tech’s lobbying opponents.“It is a sad irony that firms are importing guestworkers to service the unemployment system when hundreds of thousands of Americans who have the skills to do this work are unemployed and underemployed.”
Russell Greiff, an executive at the tech incubator 1776, is a longtime player in education policy. His global venture fund helps startups, corporations, institutions in government, and investors create technological innovations. Though Greiff is a supporter of raising the H-1B visa cap, he admits there needs to be balance between domestic and foreign talent in the tech industry. The main goal, he said, should be to drive innovation, to look toward the global economy and to ensure everyone capable gets a chance at creating.
“There is no simple answer,” Greiff said. “I think the answer is not just raising the cap- we need to take a more holistic view, and to do that, we need partners and collaborators in the process to be open minded in order to create environments for US entrepreneurs alongside foreign entrepreneurs.” This open mindedness, he said, should start with revisiting the STEM education problem, the deficit that has resulted in conflicting data results, and a sector fighting for foreign workers.
“Bringing the STEM education problem back to the conversation might solve this said shortage,” he said. “Foreign citizens deserve an updated immigration policy and a clear pathway to become US citizens. But using education as the excuse for this is not right. The U.S. deserves both.”
Greiff is not the only one who sees solving the education issue as a step toward finding a happy medium. In 2003, McKinsey & Company released a report titled “Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works” that highlighted what both tech CEOs and their adversaries preach: “high levels of youth unemployment and a shortage of job seekers with critical skills.” The company’s analysis used 100 education-to-employment initiatives from 25 countries and surveys from the youth, education providers, and employers in nine countries.
Estimating that by 2020 “there will be a global shortfall of 85 million high- and middle-skilled workers,” the report concluded that there is a disconnect between employers and employees. Their findings show that fewer than half of youth and employers believe new graduates are adequately prepared for entry level positions, while 72 percent of education providers believe the opposite.
To create an education-to-employment environment, the report advocates more communication between the two worlds, and more funding for training.
Given the onerous visa restrictions, the study by the National Foundation for American Policy suggests the most successful avenue for internationals wanting to start a U.S. company is to enter the United States as a student. The study’s findings show that a quarter all start-ups in the billion dollar startup field had founders who used this route to stay in the country. According to the nonprofit Institute of International Education, there were almost 975,000 foreign students studying in the U.S. in the 2014-2015 academic year. Mostly from China and India, the number of foreign students has increased 78 percent since 2000.
Even Trump does not oppose this logic. In a series of tweets last year, he expressed support for foreigners who attend U.S. schools and hope to stay post-graduation. “When foreigners attend our great colleges, and want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country,” Trump tweeted. “I want talented people to come into this country—to work hard and to become citizens. Silicon Valley needs engineers, etc,” he tweeted in the same minute.
Although he contradicted himself in the second tweet, he has remained steadfast in his belief that immigration reform should have clear guidelines that allow foreigners to stay in the U.S. once they graduate.
As for the tech sector, while it may be biased toward its own immigration reform needs, it has helped bring a once-backwater issue to the fore. With prominent figures like Mark Zuckerberg, immigration reform is now inevitable instead of impossible.