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Will Trump Visa Order Fix a Broken System or Smash it?

The H-1B visa controversy pits tech companies that want reliable access to highly skilled workers against populists pushing a tough "hire American'' policy.
Will Trump Visa Order Fix a Broken System or Smash it?
Image credit: Popartic | Getty Images

Last Wednesday at a factory in Kenosha, Wis., President Donald Trump signed an executive order that, in part, directed the government to review the H-1B visa program in light of his “America First’’ governing philosophy. Entrepreneurs looking to hire highly-skilled immigrants are uncertain what the consequences of the order will be.

Entrepreneurs are hopeful the Trump Administration will effectively reform the highly unpopular lottery for 65,000 visas that currently favors outsourcing firms in India over employers sponsoring individual employees. They are also worried the political pressure driving “hire American’’ policies will ultimately lead to fewer jobs for everyone. One cited Uber hiring away nearly the entire staff at the Carnegie-Mellon robotics lab to staff its self-driving car research as an example of how too little highly skilled labor undermines the R&D at the foundation of economic growth.

We asked five company founders, all immigrants who know the visa system both as applicants and as employers, their thoughts.

Related: Here's How to Fix the H-1B Visa Program to Drive Startup Growth

"Unclear and difficult for us to assess.''

Jerry Jao, CEO and founder, Retention Science, an immigrant from Taiwan and now naturalized U.S. citizen

"These newly implemented policies by our Government are unclear and difficult for us to assess. My employees are highly educated people and they are bewildered -- imagine the situation of less educated people, with less money and no access to an immigration lawyer.

"We simply do not have enough of skilled labor to support innovation and economic growth. It's not feasible to just tell employers to hire more Americans through a new regulation when we have not addressed the lack of skilled force and training needs.

"Lastly, this affects many non-U.S. born graduate students who are U.S. educated and often trained at U.S. companies but might be unemployable by a U.S. firm. This will result in a serious depletion of technical talent in the U.S. if they are forced to leave the country."

"Makes it harder for startups to succeed.''

Manny Medina, immigrant from Ecuador and CEO of Outreach

"The executive order means two big things to startups. First, it makes it harder for startups to succeed by shrinking the pool of available talent for hire. The war for talent in the tech industry remains fierce and one of the ways we’ve attracted employees over the last decade is to draft off larger companies like Amazon and Microsoft who are heavy sponsors of H-1B visas. When employees grow tired of the cultures of those giants, we’re able to snap them up. But under the executive order, the pool of available H-1B visa holders to snatch up will shrink, making the pond from which we fish even smaller.

"But there’s also a silver lining. Historically a third of H-1Bs have gone to outsourcing firms like Tata and Infosys to hire resources that are readily available in the U.S. With the increased complexity of securing visas, these firms will likely hire more in the U.S., freeing up visas for other companies to sponsor. For startups with the resources to sponsor H-1Bs, this could work in our favor. I, for one, have begun aggressively pursuing highly skilled candidates from other countries and sponsoring them to work in the U.S. -- starting with H-1B sponsorship but continuing all the way through to green card sponsorship. There’s an opportunity here for startups to step in and grow their businesses by doing the right thing."

Related: Charging a Startup with a VISA -- Just Not the Kind You Think

"The talent pool is too small."

Ximena Hartsock, Chilean immigrant and co-founder and president, Phone2Action

"While it isn’t perfect, the H1B program provides a vehicle for companies of all sizes to hire tech talent. Reducing or eliminating the program would hurt those companies. One area that needs improvement is the abuse of the system by outsourcing firms. These firms apply for a high volume of visas, often for entry-level jobs, and shrink the pool for everyone else. Last year, we applied for one of our employees, and she competed with 250,000 applicants for only 85,000 slots.

"I believe the administration is looking at changing wage structures and increased vetting of visa applicants to address some of these problems. I think one solution could be a merit-based application that takes place before the standard lottery process occurs. Other countries have programs like this, and they consider factors like education level, specialized skills and English proficiency.

"Ultimately, our first desire as employers is to 'Hire American,' but unfortunately the talent pool is too small. The good news is the administration has the opportunity to look at the root cause of the STEM shortage by working with schools. High school is too late to talk about STEM, we need to start fostering STEM education in elementary school."

Related: H-1B Visas Keep Down US Tech Wages Says Study. Will it Cause Harm to Indian IT Companies?

"Signs for optimism and concern.''

Harj Taggar, CEO of Triplebyte

"It's tough to know definitely what the recent executive order on H-1B visa reform means for companies since it's mostly a call to action for further review of the program. There are signs for optimism and concern for small business from the words surrounding the announcements. The push towards making the H-1B visa an option for only highly qualified and skilled individuals who are earning market rate salaries for their talents, is to be welcomed. Innovative companies of any size are always happy to pay the best people what they deserve, wherever they're from. Only the outsourcing companies who abuse the H-1B program will suffer from changes in this direction and it's encouraging that they, rather than technology companies building products, seem to be the focus of this reform.

"The main signs of concern for smaller businesses in particular will be on exactly what requirements to show they tried to 'hire American first' are put in place and how high the minimum salary requirements are moved. If either of these levers are pulled too hard, they'll disproportionately benefit larger companies with more resources over smaller businesses. Mostly though, we'll have to wait and see as there just aren't enough specifics in this order to know exactly how things will play out."

Related: 3 Reasons You Need to Look for Global Tech Talent

"Companies may feel a little unsettled by the changes that lie ahead.''

Vip Sandhir, CEO and founder of HighGround

"Though tech companies may feel a little unsettled by the changes that lie ahead for our country’s H-1B visa program, I don’t think it’ll deter the industry’s success. Since founding HighGround in 2012, I’ve valued the strong work ethic and innovative ideas our employees with H-1B visas have brought to the company as we’ve grown and evolved. Despite the recent immigration policy changes, I wouldn’t shy away from hiring qualified candidates with H-1Bs because we’ve had tremendous success as a result of their contributions. The current political environment, at least in my company, isn’t affecting immigrant tech workers’ goals and ambitions for their careers in this country. As long as business leaders continue to support employees with H-1Bs through the president’s review of the program, the future of tech in the U.S. will remain bright.

"As immigrant myself from London and the son of immigrants from India, I know first-hand how committed immigrants are to capitalizing on the opportunity they’ve been afforded to jumpstart their careers in the U.S. That’s why I’ve prioritized building a diverse team; on staff at HighGround, for example, we have employees who have immigrated from a variety of countries including India, China, Egypt, Africa, France, Greece, Russia, Mexico, Vietnam, Ukraine and Philippines. Regardless of how the H-1B program might change, tech companies should continue making their environments welcoming places for immigrants to share ideas and ultimately grow in their roles."