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View from Washington: Tech-Trump immigration conflict rumbles on

Technology has had a week off the Washington conflict agenda, but it has hardly gone away

Leading US technology companies expect to re-engage battle over immigration with President Donald Trump in the next few weeks, if not days. Although Trump’s original travel ban – covering refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries – has been blocked in US federal court, his administration has made it clear that it intends to replace the original Executive Order with one that is constitutionally acceptable.

Right now, Trump’s main spat over the ban is with the US judiciary and it is one that many commentators think he has been unwise to pick. His attacks on a “so-called” judge and “a bad court”, referring to the original Washington state-based judge who blocked the order and the Court of Appeal that upheld his decision, have understandably outraged much of the American legal profession.

From a technology point of view however, they have also temporarily drawn attention away from the depth of opposition to Trump’s immigration policy in Silicon Valley and beyond – and the debate that companies would like to start.

More than 100 leading technology players signed an amicus brief against the travel ban for the motion considered by the the Court of Appeal, and the US National Venture Capital Association organised a letter from 200 technology investors and start-ups that set out their opposition also. However, that largely seems to have become a side issue.

Another important point to consider is that the travel ban is arguably the lesser of technology’s concerns over Trump’s stance on immigration. While it has raised uncertainty over the US residency status of several thousand foreign employees and researchers as well as blocking access to a significant engineering talent pool, this particular battle might even be seen as a skirmish preceding a more serious conflict to come.

The greater tension arises from Trump’s plans for visas covering high-technology workers, and in particular the H-1B non-immigrant scheme for skilled foreign recruits in engineering and several other disciplines such as law and medicine. Given the UK’s exclusion from the annual Green Card lottery because of the existing volume of British emigration to the US, the H-1B is one of the primary routes for UK engineers who want to work across the Atlantic.

During his campaign, Trump accused employers of using the scheme to recruit cheaper IT workers from overseas, laying off US citizens as they did so. A key Trump ally on H-1B – and more long-standing critic – has been former Republican senator Jeff Sessions, who was just been approved to serve as Trump’s attorney general.

Current regulations cap H-1B issuance at 85,000 visas a year (20,000 under a scheme for holders of master’s or higher degrees from US universities, and 65,000 under a wider lottery). Silicon Valley has been lobbying to increase the number, but expectations are that Trump will both greatly reduce the cap and tighten up the qualifying requirements.

As with the travel ban, the strong suggestion is that this will also be achieved by Executive Order (a draft is claimed to be in circulation).

Amid the concern mounting over both the travel ban and the future of the H-1B, there is a growing feeling that high technology is finding it extremely difficult to communicate its concerns to the Trump administration.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has taken up a seat on Trump’s business advisory council and added immigration to its agenda. The president also recently welcomed Intel CEO Brian Krzanich to the Oval Office to mark his company’s renewed commitment to a chip fab in Arizona.

However, as the neophyte administration appears to lurch from crisis to crisis, there are serious questions over how much attention is being paid by White House staffers to either the council or any other sources of lobbying.

One hope is that Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, could ultimately act as a conduit between high technology and the Presidency alongside Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, an early Trump supporter and co-founder of PayPal.

For now though, Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, seems to have decided to concentrate on mastering his foreign policy brief at State – and almost certainly with good reason.

In the meantime, the relationship between the White House and one of the US’s most critical economic sectors remains highly volatile, and is likely to remain so in the near term.

There was one bright spot, however, in President Trump’s formal acceptance last week of the ‘One China’ framework which recognises the diplomatic primacy of the People’s Republic during a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Potential confrontation between the US and China over the status of Taiwan loomed heavily when Trump broke with protocol shortly after his election victory and took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen.

For high tech, this had raised the prospect of mainland China being provoked to disrupt the Taiwanese economy and supply chains which, particularly for semiconductors and PCs, feed the global engineering market.

That prospect appears to have faded. But the road ahead still looks rocky.

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