Economists and academics weigh in on the impact US President-elect Donald Trump could have on H-1B visas, which pave a route for skilled labor to fill tech jobs in America.
In order to fill specialized roles that require a high degree of education, employers across industries—especially in Silicon Valley—frequently turn to foreign-born workers, who they hire via H-1B visas.
But in a Trump presidency, bringing in high-skilled foreign workers to fill these jobs may be tough, as blocking immigration has been a signature policy goal of the campaign. During the GOP debate in Miami in March, Trump vocalized his opposition to H-1B visas.
"I know the H-1B...Nobody knows it better than me," he said in the debate. "We shouldn't have it. Very, very bad for workers."
While Trump has said he supports high-skilled immigration, he has also "proposed requiring companies to hire from an unemployed pool and suggested raising wage requirements for H-1B workers," according to a November 2016 report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
H-1B visas, which can last up to six years, are temporary work visas used by employers who need to fill positions that require specialized skills. Each year, about 85,000 people enter the US on H-1B visas.
Right now, there are around 400,000 workers in America on H-1B visas, according to Adams Nager economic policy analyst at ITIF. They're often used to hire workers in fields like biotechnology, and their most frequent use is by IT firms. After the visa expires, said Nager, some workers go on to get green cards.
"The H-1B can get a lot of bad press, but it's an essential program for filling gaps in the US workforce," said Nager. "Every year there are around 230,000 applications for those 85,000 slots, so competition is fierce. Workers are paid more than American counterparts, and studies have shown H-1B workers create opportunities for domestic counterparts."
"Trump is skeptical of H-1B visas, so I imagine he'd try to restrict them," said Rob Atkinson, president of ITIF. One of his strongest supporters, Atkinson pointed out, is Senator Jeff Sessions, who is highly opposed to H-1B visas and the need for high-skilled immigration.
Atkinson doesn't think Trump could pass a bill against the visas, since so many Republicans still support them. He also said any new policies probably wouldn't affect any high-skilled workers currently in the US on H-1B visas. Still, Atkinson believes the new administration would likely "work to make it harder for companies to apply for them" by imposing stricter requirements from employers to prove they can't hire an American for the job, for instance.
But Ron Hira, associate professor of political science at Howard University, doesn't necessarily think stricter standards for H-1B visas is a bad thing. He said that many organizations favor hiring high-skilled workers who can get green cards, and having higher standards for guest workers. According to Hira, these include the IEEE, a professional association of electrical engineers with 200,000 US members, Immigration Voice, and AFL-CIO.
Of course, this is all speculative—it's impossible to know for sure what will happen during the Trump presidency. After initially announcing on his campaign website that he was against H-1B visas, Trump completely reversed his position on immigration during the GOP Debate on March 3, saying that foreign-born workers were necessary. When pressed by moderator Megyn Kelly on the issue of H-1B visas, Trump responded: "I'm changing. I'm changing. We need highly skilled people in this country. And if we can't do it, we'll get them in."
It's no surprise that Trump may not have a clear answer on H-1B visas: As an employer, he himself used it to hire foreign workers. Plus, his third wife, Melania, used the visa to come to America.
After the debate, Trump issued this statement: "I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions."
Whatever side he does land on, Hira pointed out that Trump "will face a mixed bag in Congress. The Republicans and Democrats have splits in each of their parties about what to do legislatively. And the business interest groups will be out in full force trying to stop any sensible reform."
Still, "a Trump administration does have the ability to make significant regulatory and enforcement changes," said Hira. "This may be the area where his administration can have a relatively quick and significant impact."
Hira thinks that that if President-elect Trump will follow through on his words, employers who are using the visas for truly specialized foreign workers "have nothing to worry about. Firms will no longer be able use the H-1B program to hire cheaper indentured labor," he said. "These firms currently dominate the program and will have to change their business models by hiring US workers at market wages."
But Atkinson said he believes that "prevailing wage enforcement may not be the only limitation a Trump administration places on H-1B visas" and companies should prepare for what's next.
"Have a contingency plan," he said. "Think about Vancouver."
There are billboards in Silicon Valley that say, "Have a visa problem? Come on up to Canada," said Atkinson. "Frankly, companies are going to have to have these plans. Do they want to open up shop in Canada, where they can get visas more easily? Or go to Estonia or expand a footprint in India?"
"It will make it harder for US tech companies to thrive and for tech companies to grow," said Atkinson. "It's not going to make America great again."
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