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View from Washington: Immigration shadows lengthen over Silicon Valley

Concerns grow in Silicon Valley after new travel ban and H-1B slowdown.

Silicon Valley executives are taking an ever-gloomier view of how President Donald Trump’s immigration policies will affect their recruitment and performance.

Trump’s administration just revised its travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority nations and refugees. But, despite existing and continuing opposition to that, it may no longer be the industry’s biggest bugbear. Last week, executive irritation surged again following an announcement that hit closer to home.

On Friday 3 March, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) suspended expedited premium processing of H-1B visas for skilled foreign immigrants. H-1B visas are those issued to many foreign – including British - engineers who work in North America.

To understand the mounting frustration, you must understand a little about how H-1Bs work.

These are currently issued under an annual cap of 85,000. Some 20,000 go to applicants who have studied as postgraduates in the US. The remaining 65,000 are typically oversubscribed and therefore allocated by lottery.

Even when someone is successful, it can be six months before the visa is issued on the standard track. The now-suspended expedited track saw an application assessed within 15 days. For a US company looking to fill an important job – and qualification supposedly depends on applicants filling important jobs – that difference matters.

Employers assert that such delays can apply serious brakes to performance and innovation while a much-needed staffer sits idle overseas. As we are repeatedly told, time to market is king.

Technology companies cited competitiveness when they joined the earlier challenge to Trump’s travel ban in court. The amicus brief more than a hundred signed said: “The [Executive] Order makes it more difficult and expensive for US companies to recruit, hire, and retain some of the world’s best employees. It disrupts ongoing business operations.”

Talking to several senior technology managers, it is clear that these criticisms apply equally, probably more so to the H-1B slowdown.

It is noteworthy that plenty of these recruiters do not buy UCSIS’s explanation (it says it is swamped by a backlog of applications) nor its claim that the suspension is temporary. Nor have their fears been assuaged by Trump touting a merit-based immigration system during February’s Joint Address to Congress.

At root – as with so much else in the US – is the breakdown in trust between Trump’s administration and much of the rest of the country. And Trump has fuelled scepticism over immigration specifically.

Meeting White House correspondents before the Joint Address, the President discussed creating a path to legal residency for undocumented workers. But it was not in the speech, nor was that some last-minute edit. Instead, a senior administration official later admitted it had been a “misdirection” designed to get good pre-speech coverage.

The hacks were furious. But what should worry Trump is that the incident led too many corporate observers of his immigration strategy to the same conclusion as CNN anchor John King: “Maybe we shouldn’t believe what they say.”

In this poisoned atmosphere, worries are quickly moving beyond the future of just the H-1B.

Among existing holders and their employers, fear is growing over the associated H4 visa. Introduced by President Obama, it allows spouses of H-1B staff also to work in the US. The Trump administration has already begun court filings that could see it rolled back even for existing families (although it is true that H4 distribution was still in its infancy when Obama left office).

A particular concern is that if some engineers see husbands or wives blocked from a path to employment or forced to surrender existing jobs, they will themselves quit or never take up offers to start with. Remember, many US technology clusters – and particularly the area around San Jose – suffer some of the higher costs of living in the US.

The broader issue crawling out of all that is the long-term attractiveness of the US to new immigrants. And it isn’t just that some already see a bright light on a hill now turning into a spotlight potentially shepherding them to a detention centre.

The hate-crime murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an employee with Garmin’s Kansas operation, has become understandably controversial in his home country of India. Much of its press has echoed his father’s response: “I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the US in the present circumstances.”

But as this and other attacks are reported, from shootings to racist abuse, employers believe that distaste for and fear of Trump’s America are spreading much more widely. Two companies I contacted reported the withdrawal of job applications by engineers from Europe in the last fortnight (and it’s not as though our own continent is an economic or political bed of roses right now).

The final downbeat note – and I’m sorry but there is no optimistic final twist – is that there is scant hope Trump will even be able to enact broad immigration reform any time soon.

In the short-to-medium term at least, Washington’s legislative agenda will be dominated by healthcare and the Republicans’ attempt to sell an alternative to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act to the American public. As a clear sign of just how incendiary a subject it is, there is no guarantee of agreement or alignment over the proposals just tabled in Congress and those favoured by the White House, even though the same party controls both.

With immigration an equally sensitive topic, there is no way anyone in Washington can imagine politicians trying to tackle both in a comprehensive manner at the same time. Rather, the fear is that the Trump administration will continue to hack away at chunks of the system it does not like with more provocative and disruptive Executive Orders.

Oh yeah… and then there’s Russia.

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