May 6, 2020

The tech industry says immigration makes the U.S. more competitive

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The foreign-born are essential for innovation, the industry's lobbying group says. Other countries welcome them in.

When President Donald Trump issued an executive order last month temporarily suspending the approval of some green cards, many in the tech industry pushed back hard.

The 60-day suspension doesn’t apply to H-1B visas — those for highly skilled workers that tech companies often use to bring in engineers and other workers. But the Consumer Technology Association, the big lobbying and trade group for the tech industry, says immigrants have founded some of the country’s biggest tech companies and contributed to our startup and innovation economy. If these restrictions go on or get expanded, it says, that will hurt the country’s ability to compete. 

I spoke with Michael Petricone, the CTA’s senior vice president of government relations. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Michael Petricone (Photo courtesy of Petricone)

Michael Petricone: It’s a huge issue for us. Immigrants and their children have founded 45% of the U.S. Fortune 500 companies, and that includes tech companies like Intel, Amazon, Google and Apple. Steve Jobs’ father came from Syria, and Andy Grove of Intel came from Hungary and Sergey Brin came from Russia. Jeff Bezos’ father came from Cuba. Imagine how different our country would be if we’d closed our doors to those immigrants.

Molly Wood: The order doesn’t affect workers who enter the U.S. on the H-1B visa, which is used by many tech companies to bring in workers, but you’re still worried just across the board?

Petricone: We’ve heard rumors that the administration is going to be addressing and putting limitations on H-1B visas next. That may be something that they’re considering in the near future, and we think that would be a mistake.

Wood: So the concern is not just about this existing order, which is for 60 days, but the idea that down the road, the tech sector could be actively hurt by ongoing restrictions?

Petricone: It is. And also bear in mind, this is a competitive marketplace, the marketplace for the world’s smartest people is competitive. If immigrants don’t come here, they’re going to go someplace else. They’re going to go someplace like Canada. For a long time, there was a billboard on [U.S. Route] 101 and it said something like “Immigration problems? Come to Canada, we have a new startup visa.” You’ve got these other countries that are embracing skilled immigrants, like programmers and engineers, entrepreneurs. At the same time, the U.S. is tightening its borders. These countries know these workers create businesses and generate jobs for locals. Every one of these immigrants that ends up in another country is a win for that country and a loss for us.

Wood: Is there any argument for the restriction? I know that there probably will be people who agree with the president and say Americans should be first in line for jobs if we have 30% unemployment.

Petricone: The point is that immigrants come here and they create jobs. It’s not like there’s a fixed number of jobs to be had. They come here, they create companies, they create jobs and they hire Americans. Immigrants are a crucial part of our nation’s economy and the tech industry. That’s especially true today. Just look around. Immigrants are helping respond to the pandemic in research and IT and AI and food supply. As we come out of the pandemic, we’re going to need to innovate as never before, and we need immigrants and the world’s best minds to be part of that process.

President Trump held a “virtual town hall” with Fox News anchors at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. Trump has suspended the approval of some green cards. (Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

In other H-1B news, the Economic Policy Institute released a report Monday criticizing how those visas are administered. It found that major U.S. companies, including Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple, take advantage of the program to underpay tech workers with visas.

Despite the current executive order, the administration did announce a 60-day grace period last week for people who currently have H-1B visas or are applying for green cards to give them more time to file necessary paperwork. Some 200,000 high-skilled workers were set to lose their legal status by June. 

For the moment, much of the tech industry is suffering from the opposite of competitive recruiting. According to one unofficial tracker, about 30,000 people have been laid off just in the industry. On Tuesday, Airbnb became the latest tech company to announce workforce cuts. It said it would cut 25% of its staff — about 1,900 employees. CEO Brian Chesky’s email to employees said the company expected its revenue to be less than half of what it was the prior year. Yelp, TripAdvisor, Carta and other startups already announced layoffs. There are reported cuts coming at Juul and Uber too. TechCrunch has a piece looking at data from that tracker I mentioned, and said most of the cuts are coming from sales and customer service departments. Engineering and operations employees were also likely to be affected.

Also watching

The state of California and several cities have sued Uber and Lyft for allegedly misclassifying their workers as independent contractors instead of employees. The lawsuit says taxpayers have to bear the cost of benefits that the companies should be paying to their workers, which is especially acute now as state and local revenue is falling fast because of the pandemic. In a statement to TechCrunch, Lyft said it’s looking forward to working on a resolution with the state. In a statement totally true to form, Uber basically said it’ll contest the lawsuit in court and said the state should be making it easier, not harder, for people to be able to earn money quickly.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer