With relatively open immigration policies, America has drawn talent from around the world, something very evident in the Seattle area. No surprise that President Trump’s push to curtail immigration is not playing well here.
A cynic might say that the reaction of technology companies to Donald Trump’s immigrant ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries is a self-serving and pre-emptive strike.
After all, they’re worried about the administration severely limiting the H-1B visa program, which allows high-skilled immigrants to work in the U.S., especially in Silicon Valley and other technopolises such as Seattle. H-1B has long been criticized as a way to pay Americans less and outsource work to India.
On the other hand, self-interest and genuine principles can coexist.
Microsoft President Brad Smith was sincere when he wrote in an email, “We believe that these types of immigration policies are good for people, good for business, and good for innovation.”
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And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, among the harshest critics of the ban, has real skin in the game. As owner of The Washington Post, he was threatened by Trump during the campaign with an antitrust investigation. Amazon Web Services is a big government contractor.
Economics doesn’t provide all the answers about immigration, which Trump has pledged to curtail beyond the seven-nation executive order.
There’s broad consensus that immigrants contribute to economic growth. A report by the Kauffman Foundation found that they are more than twice as likely to start companies as native-born Americans.
With relatively open immigration policies, America has drawn talent from around the world, something very evident in the Seattle area. To take a prominent example, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is an American citizen who emigrated from India.
Seriously limiting immigration, even a sea change in D.C. to an “America First” outlook, risks redirecting the world’s talent to other countries. If operating in Seattle faces new barriers, Vancouver, B.C., is nearby.
Some economists argue that even illegal immigrants are a net plus, adding more economic value and tax revenues (sales, Social Security) than they cost school districts and hospitals.
On the other hand, legal and illegal immigration in recent years has likely depressed earnings in some cases, especially for those with high-school diplomas or less.
The H-1B visa program, a major magnet for world technology workers, is intended to address a shortfall in native-born Americans with training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Code.org, a Seattle-based organization that aims to expand computer science in schools, says more than 512,000 computing jobs are open nationwide, but only 43,000 computer-science students graduate each year from colleges and universities.
Under law, the visa program applies to only those with specialized skills or a bachelor’s degree in the area in which they are being temporarily employed. It has an annual cap (around 85,000 for this fiscal year). In theory, the visa holders can only accept jobs where an employer can’t find a qualified citizen.
The tech industry argues that the program is essential for its competitive edge. But the tech sector also values America’s openness to immigration and the world. This is why tech leaders have been more willing than other CEOs to take on a thin-skinned, vengeance-prone new president.
Unfortunately, H-1B abuse has angered many. Almost everyone, it seems, has a story about American workers training their foreign replacements.
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For example, in 2015 Southern California Edison replaced 500 American information-technology employees with H-1B workers from India.
In 2014, the Center for Investigative Journalism produced a story about labor brokers that sponsor Indian H1-B workers, exploit them and steal their wages. Another story revealed falsified job letters in the tech industry as part of fraud in the H-1B program.
The Obama administration tried to tighten enforcement but Congress has yet to implement more thorough reform.
Seattle is a very international city. One could make the argument this has played a major role in its success, especially as technology has become one of the most important drivers of its economy. No wonder Trump’s ban provoked demonstrations downtown and at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
But we also must consider the Trump voters who are probably satisfied. He’s fulfilling his campaign promises. They don’t hold large protests in the streets. They just vote.
I’m skeptical as to how much economic anxiety played into their support. It was racial and identity anxiety. And I’m not calling them “racists.” All our major issues have been weaponized, making calm discussion and consideration impossible.
After all, by almost all measures the economy has been improving. This is true even in most of the industrial Midwest and certainly the South, both strong Trump territories.
Sure, the coal miner might want his job back, but his beef is more with automation and the price of natural gas than with environmental regulations.
In other words, the deciding factor for most Trump voters was cultural, not strictly economic.
The immigrant population in 2014 was 42.4 million, or 13.3 percent of the U.S. total — a record. Add in their American-born children and it’s 26 percent. In 1970, it was 4.7 percent of the American population.
Progressives celebrate this as diversity and some have loudly looked forward to the day when whites, with their “white privilege” gone, are a minority.
But a substantial number of Americans — many don’t admit it all to pollsters, but they vote — disagree. They want their country back, one with a white-majority, native-born population. And in their memory, that country had plenty of good jobs and a strong middle class.
This America doesn’t live by the same imperatives as the tech elite or cities such as Seattle. The battle is joined.