Donald Trump, the tech industry and the H-1B visa: How will he tackle the thorny issue of foreign guest workers?

Trump has softened his stance on guest worker visas. The tech and IT services industries want to know by how much

Published December 17, 2016 3:30PM (EST)

Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, Larry Page, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc. (parent company of Google), Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook,  Mike Pence and Donald Trump (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, Larry Page, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc. (parent company of Google), Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, Mike Pence and Donald Trump (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Earlier this week, the bosses of some of the world’s biggest technology companies rode up the golden escalator at Trump Tower to discuss with the country’s next president what they’d like to see him do after he moves into the White House next month.

In a conference room high above New York City’s Fifth Avenue, President-elect Donald Trump held court with more than a dozen big names in Big Tech, who brought a number of their key points, including a call for a tax holiday on profits the industry is hoarding overseas, the lack of gender and racial diversity in tech and the need for more science and engineering graduates.

Flanked by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella brought up another issue that’s vexing the country’s top tech companies: the perpetual scramble for a limited number of work permits that allow tech companies to bring in skilled foreign workers. Nadella pointed out that most Microsoft research and development activity is in the U.S., and if the country wants to keep it that way, he argued, his company needs easier access to the limited number of work visas the federal government offers companies each year.

Trump, who on the campaign trail pledged to crack down on “uncontrolled foreign worker admissions” by pulling back on the number of foreign work permits, seemed on Wednesday be open to helping the tech industry with this problem.

“Let’s fix that,” he said, according to Recode, which first reported details from the meeting. “What can I do to make it better?”

The answer to that question is complicated.

Critics on both sides of this issue have complained that this type of visa, created to bring in highly skilled employees such as electrical engineers helping to make the next generation of microchip, is increasingly being used to import undergraduate-degree holders instead — think run-of-the mill IT coders.

“The program was designed to bring in a small number of people with exceptional talents and skills that are not easily replicated, and it’s turned into a program whereby a lot of companies just bring in workers who basically have skills comparable to a lot of workers who are here and available,” Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, told Salon. “In our view, that needs to be cleaned up.”

The work permits in question, known as H-1B visas, are broadly coveted by American companies. They’re used to bring in foreign workers like nurses, teachers, fashion models and office staff with specialized skills. But the U.S. only issues 85,000 of these visas each year on a first-come-first-serve basis, and the constant demand far, far outpaces the supply. The quota is in place to prevent a flood of foreign workers who could wind up competing with locals for American jobs — something critics of guest worker programs say is happening even with the current cap. Entertainment and media giant Disney is being sued by 250 of its former IT workers who claim they were forced to train their Indian replacements before being laid off from their jobs at the company’s Orlando theme park. Last year, employers in Charlotte, North Carolina, a financial services hub that has a high demand for IT workers, submitted requests to the Labor Department for 16,500 H-1B workers. Because of the annual quota, most of these requests were either denied or delayed.

In recent years, Silicon Valley companies like Intel, Qualcomm, Google and Amazon have been increasingly competing for these visas against information technology consulting companies like Cognizant, Tata Consultancy, Wipro and Accenture, whose business models depend heavily on access to H-1B visas. These consulting companies constantly flood the Labor Department with H-1B visa petitions to bring in workers, mostly from India, and therefore grab the biggest slice of the H-1B visa pie.

Critics of the current U.S. guest worker system argue that the way these visas are designed enables companies to outsource work at a lower cost. Because guest workers are required to remain with the employers that recruited them — and are compelled to leave the country within days if they lose their jobs — they’re less likely to speak out against labor violations, such as unpaid overtime or workplace safety violations. This inherently offers an incentive for some employers to try to replace employees with these foreign temporary workers.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit public policy think tank that focuses on U.S. tech innovation, said it’s vital that technology companies continue to recruit the best talent globally, and that it’s important to consider the value the job is adding to the economy. Currently only 20,000 of the 85,000 visas are reserved for advanced degree holders.

“If you expanded the advanced-degree category, and maybe shrink the other category down, that’s one way to respond to that,” he told Salon. “Redoing the balance toward the scarcer graduate-degree worker, that would be a way for Trump to potentially deal with this politically.”

And Trump will have to deal with this politically, walking a tightrope between his rabidly anti-immigrant constituency and the interests of the private sector that he ultimately serves, if his Cabinet picks are any indication.

By Angelo Young

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