Trump’s worker visa ban will hit Silicon Valley hard

'This would be a blow to very early-stage tech companies trying to get off the ground'

Yesterday, President Donald Trump released an executive order that extended an existing ban on immigrant work visas through the end of the year. The move prohibits immigrants who are outside the United States from applying, but because new visas are generally issued in October, the impacts of the new rules will be felt well into 2021.

The proclamation specifically targets H-1B and H-2B visas, as well as J and L visas. As a result, the San Francisco Bay area, with its high concentration of STEM-based industries, could be disproportionately impacted.

To better understand the executive order’s potential impacts on the startup community — and the tech landscape in general — I interviewed TechCrunch contributor Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley-based immigration lawyer.

TechCrunch: How long does the executive order prohibit issuing new work visas?

Sophie Alcorn: The new ban will last until at least December 31, 2020 and may be continued longer “as necessary.” The government plans to revisit this order within the next month. Every 60 days after that, the Departments of State, Labor and Homeland Security will be recommending modifications if necessary.

What will be some of the initial impacts of suspending new H-1B visas?

Beneficiaries of this spring’s H-1B visa lottery (for government fiscal year 2021) will not be able to apply for visas at consulates this year. Normally after the I-129 petition gets approved in the summer, applicants will go for visa interviews at consulates abroad to request H-1Bs and to enter the U.S. before the October 1 typical start date. That will probably not be possible this year.

For individuals with technical, professional and research backgrounds and companies that engage in research, a big effect is that there won’t be new J-1s issued this year either for interns, trainees, researchers and specialists who are currently abroad.

Do you have a sense of how many J-1 visa holders there are in the Bay Area?

I estimate that there are at least 15,000 J-1 visa holders in the Bay Area. In 2018, California had over 35,000 participants across over 600 sponsors according to the State Department. The purpose of the program is to promote cross-cultural exchange.

J-1s are not just au pairs, who are vital to so many families, including those with special-needs children, but many other types of workers as well. Other examples are post-doctoral researchers at universities such as Stanford and Berkeley in myriad fields. J-1 holders are also conducting advanced research at private tech companies in fields such as AI and semiconductors and genomics.