US President Donald Trump (AFP)
WASHINGTON: Industry leaders and executives of US giants from Amazon and Apple to Tesla and Twitter slammed President Trump’s executive order on the suspension of green card processing and freezing work visas for foreign workers, warning on Tuesday that the move will set back American innovation and competitiveness. Advocates of a hardline nativist immigration policy celebrated the Presidential decree, although some complained that it did not go far enough.
The US Chamber of Commerce, which is typically Republican-leaning, led the criticism, warning that ‘restrictive changes to our nation’s immigration system will push investment and economic activity abroad, slow growth, and reduce job creation.” Across the tech industry, it was seen as a “gift” to Canada, which could benefit from its more open policy towards high skilled workers.
“Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses, and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back,” the Chamber’s CEO Tom Donahue said in a statement. Disapproval also came from individual CEOs, some of whom have tactfully tried working with the White House to influence the outcome.
“Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today. Disappointed by today’s proclamation – we’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all,” Google’s Indian-American CEO Sundar Pichai, who has engaged with Trump on economic issues, tweeted.
Likewise, Tesla’s Elon Musk, who has also worked with Trump on some issues, argued that the skillsets brought by foreign workers are “net job creators” in the US. “Very much disagree with this action…Visa reform makes sense, but this is too broad,” he said, even as those who opposed the Trump move warned that scrapping visas for skilled personnel could mean “the next Elon Musk will be creating the next SpaceX or Tesla elsewhere.”
Both Pichai and Musk are among the scores of high profile tech executives who benefited from the US visa regime that over two decades welcomed more than a million skilled tech workers, often through the academic/college education route, and who in turn have contributed immensely to America. By some accounts, more than a third of Silicon Valley companies are founded by immigrants, creating millions of jobs and billions in wealth.
“From 1996 to 2011, the business startup rate of immigrants increased by more than 50 percent, while the native-born startup rate declined by 10 percent, to a 30-year low. Immigrants today are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born citizens,” INC magazine noted in a 2018 article headlined The Heroes of America’s Startup Economy Weren’t Born in America.
Trump administration officials hewing the nativist line claimed that the President’s executive order would free up about 525,000 US. jobs for Americans that would have otherwise been filled by foreign visa workers. But the argument carried little conviction, considering jobless claims in pandemic stricken America is over 40 million, and in the words of one critic, the worker who is laid off from the hospitality industry is hardly likely to write code for a tech company. In fact, the pressure on Trump to cull immigration pre-dates the pandemic.
Even former administration mandarins disapproved the latest move. “Being able to attract the best and the brightest through the H1-B visa program has made America more successful and resilient. Knowing how to tap foreign talent is a US strength, not a weakness!” tweeted Alice Wells, who was till recently the pointperson for South Asia in the State Department. “This whole system needs smart and measured reform. But this is like all of Trump’s other moves: He throws a hammer at a piano to make music,” noted Kara Swisher, a technology writer and co-founder of Re-Code.
Senior administration officials who briefed journalists on background on Monday said the ban was “temporary,” while indicating that it could be extended beyond December 31, 2020 when it is set to expire. For all practical purposes, this means it might require President Trump to lose the election for the ban to be overturned, or conversely, a second term for the President could result in extending the ban and reforming current immigration laws and rules in a manner that it will satisfy the Trump base that has campaigned vigorously to staunch immigration.
Amid broad recognition that India would be the country most affected by the visa squeeze (more than 50 per cent of H1-b visas go to Indian professionals), Indian officials took comfort in the fact that those already in the US will not be affected. The nativist drive to terminate the Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows international students to intern in the US (for up to three years in case of STEM students), also remains untouched despite vigorous effort by the anti-immigration lobby to terminate the program. Most students don’t see any percentage in coming to the US if they cannot intern in the country to gain practical experience while gunning for a job in the US and elsewhere in the world.