President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily halting work visas like the H-1B visa program for highly skilled workers, cutting off a critical source of foreign labor for tech companies already complaining about tech talent shortages.
Visa holders already in the U.S. and those applicants who have already received a visa are exempt from the ban. The restrictions are intended to last until the end of the year, which would disrupt the government’s typical process of awarding new visas at the beginning of the national fiscal calendar in October.
Officials from the Trump administration told The Wall Street Journal that the move is intended to protect American jobs, but executives in the technology industry have long warned that visa restrictions would hurt the nation’s ability to compete in industries that have both strategic and financial significance as engines of economic growth.
Tech officials have even cited immigration curbs as a factor that would force companies to relocate more of their operations overseas in an effort to hire and retain top technology talent.
“The technology industry is working overtime to keep Americans connected during a global pandemic by providing food delivery services, telehealth care, collaborative business solutions, and ways for families and friends to stay connected,” said Linda Moore, the president and chief executive of the tech industry’s lobbying group, TechNet, in a statement. “Looking forward, technology will continue to be crucial to the rebuilding of our economy. Today’s executive order only hinders the ability of businesses to make decisions on how best to deploy their existing workforce and hire new employees. This will slow innovation and undermine the work the technology industry is doing to help our country recover from unprecedented events.”
According to news reports, officials expect these new restrictions to last until the end of the year, and expand the immigration bans that the president put in place in April that blocked family members of U.S. citizens from immigrating and slashed the number of visas available to high-skilled workers looking to immigrate to the U.S.
Estimates provided to The Wall Street Journal indicate that roughly 525,000 people will be unable to enter the country as a result of the expanded travel restrictions, including 170,000 green card holders barred from entering the U.S. since April. The Trump administration official quoted by the Journal called the initiative an “America-first recovery” that would potentially open up 500,000 jobs for out-of-work Americans.
Technology executives are already voicing their displeasure with the reported ban. “Banning all H1B [sic] visas means CEOs like me have to open offices and hire more people in countries like Canada that allow immigration. This visa ban is morally wrong and economically stupid,” wrote Anshu Sharma, the chief executive officer of the technology startup Skyflow.
Investors are also up in arms about the decision’s impact on America’s ability to compete.
“Whether his administration realizes it or not, they are creating a significant handicap for US innovation. Our most innovative and impactful portfolio companies and many of their employees started as H-1B holders,” wrote Stonly Baptiste, the co-founder of technology investment fund, Urban.us. “We literally couldn’t have built our portfolio in an environment without H-1B. And we’re not even an immigrant focused fund.”
Also on the chopping block are H-2B visas, which are used to let short-term seasonal workers in landscaping and non-farm jobs into the country, J-1 jobs for short-term workers like camp counselors and au pairs and L-1 visas for corporate company transfers.
“By limiting the talent pool for American companies, the US government is hindering our ability to build strong, defensible organizations,” wrote Andy Coravos, the chief executive officer of the healthcare-focused startup Elektra Labs, in a direct message. “The Trump Administration’s Executive Order to suspend foreign work visas is not only based in fear, but also perpetuates fear within our community, and is not in our society’s best interest.”
Healthcare workers, coronavirus researchers and food supply workers in food packaging are all exempt from the visa suspensions.
Technology executives aren’t the only ones coming out against the tighter immigration rules. A group of nine Republican senators, including South Carolina’s powerful senior senator, Lindsey Graham, and Texas Senator John Cornyn, issued a joint letter on May 27, which pleaded with the president to reconsider the rumored immigration restrictions.
“Guest workers are needed to boost American business, not take American jobs,” they wrote.
Update June 22: Linked to the published executive order.