As President Trump signals his intent to severely restrict immigration in the U.S., the technology industry has moved swiftly and vocally to challenge his administration. Just last week, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from the president’s Economic Advisory Council, after users criticized the ride-sharing company for allegedly exploiting a taxi protest against a temporary immigrant ban and for Kalanick’s relationship with Trump.
Nonetheless, Trump appears unmoved by nationwide protests or any other signs of oppositions against clamping down on immigration, which leads me to wonder what are the risks that America, particularly tech executives, see that Trump does not?
Through an executive order, the Trump administration is considering reforming guest worker visas as part of a larger push for immigration reform, although officials have not proposed any new rules that would target companies with the H-1B “dependent” classification. These visas are available to foreign workers on a temporary basis for specialty occupations – highly specialized knowledge and experience not available otherwise to that employer. The technology industry relies heavily on these workers to bring talent and perspectives that enable startups to compete in the global marketplace and win. The current cap is for roughly 85,000 per year, down from a peak of 195,000 in 2003. There is currently a much larger demand for these visas than are currently available and they are chosen on a lottery basis.
One change that is being discussed is changing the way H-1B visas are granted. During a recent White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted reforming the H-1B visa program is on the table for President Trump. Rather than being based on the current system that involves a random lottery, officials may base it on salaries and give preference to those earning higher salaries in an effort to boost US wages.
The problem with that approach is that it overlooks the business model of most startups, where employees often take lower salaries in exchange for an equity stake in the company. By basing the issuance of visas on salary, startups could find themselves less competitive in finding the right kind of talent. Startups don’t have the luxury of paying the highest salaries; many are scrappy and they rely on investors with big stakes in the company. Often times, employees take pay cuts in exchange for equity stakes in a company that might not succeed. This is a personal risk for employees, but it also offers them an incentive to work harder and see the company do well on the assumption that if the business does well they will see a payoff, too.
To name a few, companies like AT&T, Comcast, DuPont, eBay, Google, Pfizer were founded by immigrants. Losing that talent would be a huge loss, and if those entrepreneurs go to other countries, such as China, America risks never see those jobs again.
Let’s work together to make it easier — not harder — to feed the engine of productivity and job creation that our country needs to stay ahead. Let Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, and all of the great pockets of innovation all over this country do what we do best – build great companies with the best talent we can find in the world. So it’s critical to keep the H-1B lottery system in place, and raise the cap to attract the talent America needs to continue innovating. This is the only way to ensure the next generation of great companies with fantastic jobs for Americans will be born. It’s how America will continue to be great, now and in the future.
Jennifer Fonstad is co-founder and managing partner of Aspect Ventures.