Tough Times Ahead for Tech Firms' Guest Worker Programs

Trump's immigration ban may lead to complications for the tech industry and all the workers they contract with on visas.

by Matt Day, The Seattle Times / January 31, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- The U.S. technology industry spent the weekend pushing back against President Trump's executive order banning citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Tech companies may have a tougher fight coming, with high stakes for thousands of Puget Sound-area workers: reform of guest-worker visa programs that the likes of Microsoft, Amazon.com, Google and a host of Indian outsourcing firms rely on.

Those programs may be Trump's next target as he inserts a more nationalistic bent to the country's immigration laws. A draft executive order, obtained by Bloomberg News, would direct immigration authorities to give priority to ensuring jobs are held by Americans.

"Our country's immigration policies should be designed and implemented to serve, first and foremost, the U.S. national interest," the draft proposal reads, according to a copy reviewed by Bloomberg.

Large technology companies have broadly stood up for immigration in the past few days but have been reluctant to stake out policy positions ahead of potential guest-worker proposals from the new administration. But they'd likely oppose an order that rolled back current programs.

"We would come out against it, and advocate every branch of government on the stupidity of the action," said Michael Schutzler, chief of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) lobbying group. "We would hope the state would pursue that with the same kind of legal fervor."

It is unclear what force an executive order would carry. Guest-worker programs are governed by acts of Congress and federal rule-making procedures, and the legislative branch would likely have to step in to accomplish major changes, immigration lawyers say.

The order targets the alphabet soup of programs, H-1B, L-1, E-2 and B1 among them, that determine who among the hundreds of thousands applicants annually receive clearance to live and work in the U.S.

The most popular of those programs, H-1B, is used predominantly by software makers and other high-tech firms. Congress caps the program at 65,000 visas a year, while an additional 20,000 are set aside for those graduating from U.S. universities with high-level degrees.

The program was built to address what companies say is a chronic shortage of skilled workers graduating from U.S. universities, particularly in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"There is a large, well- documented workforce shortage at America's home-grown leading-edge information technology companies," said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

There are more than 500,000 open computer- science jobs in the nation, and fewer than 43,000 people graduated with computer-science degrees last year, according to Seattle nonprofit Code.org.

Avvo, a Seattle company that operates an online marketplace for those seeking legal help, has hired one or two employees through H-1B visas each year for the past several years, said Chief Legal Officer Josh King. Most of those are software developers.

Sometimes finding a local employee just isn't possible, King said.

"It's a very tight market for talent," he said.

Still, the H-1B program has come under fire from across the political spectrum, as a result in part from the rise of Indian outsourcing firms, which are now the largest individual recipients of such visas.

Companies such as Infosys, Tata and Wipro largely exist as on-demand information technology departments. They have occasionally been the target of charges that American companies are slashing their own head count in favor of immigrant workers employed by those firms.

Ron Hira, an associate professor at Howard University who has studied guest- worker visas, says wage data suggests that outsourcing companies are going after cheaper talent than U.S. technology companies who use the same program.

"All of the evidence makes it abundantly clear that the H-1B visa is being used to displace U.S. workers employed in decent-paying middle-class STEM jobs," he said in a blog post.

The wage disparity shows up in applications from the largest users of H-1B visas in Washington state.

Microsoft and Amazon, the two largest applicants to the program seeking workers in Washington, offered starting average salaries of $124,000 to potential guest workers in the most recent fiscal year, Labor Department data show.

Infosys, the No. 3 applicant for workers to be placed in Washington, offered an average salary of $88,000.

Part of the disparity is likely related to the skills required for the positions being filled.

"High-skilled immigration has been a fundamental driver of innovation and economic growth in Puget Sound for decades," Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith said in a statement. "We appreciate its continued importance to our employees, we're monitoring the situation closely, and will act aggressively to advocate for their needs."

Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment, and Infosys declined to comment.

Trump and his surrogates have given mixed messages on guest-worker programs.

During the presidential campaign, Trump's campaign website called for companies to hire workers who are Americans. But in subsequent interviews, and in a conversation with technology-industry chiefs last month, Trump indicated some willingness to work with the industry to draw skilled workers to the U.S.

Meanwhile, Trump's pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has advocated curtailing the ability of outsourcing companies to use H-1B visas.

"Who knows?" said Abby Loomis, a Seattle immigration attorney. "Those are the two key words."

Potential reforms floated in the past would replace the H-1B's current lottery system with an auction system. A program that awarded the limited number of visas to the highest bidders might better fulfill the goal of filling gaps in high-skilled roles, advocates say.

The WTIA's Schutzler says his member companies wouldn't be opposed to reforms that target offshoring firms. "It would make for more visas for those of us doing it the proper way," he said.

Schutzler said the WTIA estimates that about 8,000 of the 200,000 technology workers in Washington state are holders of H-1B visas.

Technology companies and the lobbyists and attorneys who work on immigration issues caution against wholesale removal of the H-1B program.

"Silicon Valley, and we'll call it Silicon Valley north, and Silicon Valley east, those places really need this program," said Greg McCall, an immigration attorney and partner with Perkins Coie in Seattle. "For that to be eliminated or reduced would be bad for the economy."

Information from Bloomberg News and Seattle Times business reporter Ángel González is included in this report.

©2017 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs