The turmoil over immigration issues, sparked by President Trump’s travel restrictions, reaches deeply into the area’s tech industry, which has come to depend heavily on immigrant talent. The industry is especially concerned about the future of H-1B and other visa classifications.
Karan Goel always expected it would be difficult to secure a long-term visa to work in the U.S. after his four years of studying computer science at the University of Washington. But his path to that visa just got a lot murkier.
Goel, a 22-year-old originally from New Delhi, India, needs a visa to continue working in the U.S. when his student status expires. He planned to work under a provision that allows student visas to be extended for up to two years while he entered the lottery for an H-1B, the coveted visa intended for highly skilled workers.
But now an unexpected hurdle may be popping up. And he has no idea how to clear it, or if he will even need to in the first place.
President Trump’s executive order Jan. 27, which barred entry into the U.S. for citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations, created chaos at airports, sparked opposition from business leaders and Washington state elected officials, and raised the prospect that changes to guest- worker programs might be similarly chaotic.
Goel, who works at Google, says the lawyers at the company he’s consulted told him they hope to hear more soon but don’t know what to expect.
“It’s just confusion all over and a lot of fear and a lot of uncertainty,” he said, noting that he was speaking in a personal capacity.
Leaked drafts of executive orders suggested the Trump administration may be planning a broad review of the U.S. immigration system. That is said to include H-1B and other guest-worker visas, work permits for their spouses, and an Obama administration program that shields from deportation some immigrants who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children.
Changes to those policies would have wide-ranging impacts in the Seattle area, where about one in five residents was born in another country.
The anchors of the region’s booming high-tech economy, Microsoft and Amazon.com, rely on thousands of employees living here under visas for highly skilled guest workers.
Area colleges and universities are similarly fueled by talented students and faculty from abroad.
In the wake of the executive order signed last month, many who work in fields touched by immigration are worried that the Trump administration may take a disruptive approach to reform that dents the appeal of Washington, and the U.S. as a whole, as a destination for the best and the brightest.
“That (January) executive order, without the foresight of being properly vetted, had a disastrous effect,” said Davis Bae, a partner and immigration attorney with Fisher Phillips in Seattle. “The concern I have is that if Trump is looking at changes to the H-1B program with the same kind of chaotic implementation, that will result in similarly disastrous implications for individuals and the companies that rely on them.”
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Already, some Seattle companies are making contingency plans. And those plans may involve Canada. Or Singapore. Or London.
Amazon said last week that it currently has job offers outstanding to seven Iran-born job seekers who are citizens of Australia, Canada and Germany. In the wake of Trump’s executive order, the company is considering placing them in Amazon worksites outside the U.S.
Kirkland cloud startup BitTitan said that if the U.S. curbed guest-worker programs, it would continue hiring the most talented engineers it could find — it just might have to hire them to work from its Singapore office.
“It would cause us to think about hiring more folks to work outside the U.S.,” said Barney Silver, BitTitan’s vice president of finance. “And I don’t think that’s a win for the U.S.”
Filling a gap
The H-1B visa was created in 1990 to address what companies and political leaders said was a shortage of workers in certain highly skilled professions.
That shortage continues, technologists and educators say, as the U.S. education system has failed to keep up with an economy growing increasingly dependent on building and maintaining software and internet applications.
Companies from a wide range of industries that want to bring workers in under the H-1B program enter an annual lottery that allocates 85,000 visas. Most of the visas are scooped up by technology firms, with Microsoft and Amazon among the leading applicants. The permits are valid for three years, with the option for renewal for another term.
Workers who came to the area to work at Microsoft during the company’s boom years, many of whom later went on to gain permanent residency or citizenship, were some of the vanguard of a new generation of immigrants hailing from Asia and Latin America.
In 1990, 9.1 percent of King County residents were born in another country, census data show.
By 2015, 21.2 percent of residents were foreign born. In Bellevue and Redmond, Microsoft’s two main U.S. research and development hubs, more than a third of residents were born outside the U.S.
In the past several years, two new federal programs were added to the opportunities open to people interested in working and studying in the U.S.
The Optional Practical Training program extends student visas for graduates with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, while an addition to the H4 visa allows selected spouses of temporary workers to find a job themselves. Both could be on the chopping block, immigration lawyers say.
A push for reform
The H-1B program has many critics.
Labor groups and elected officials across the political spectrum have advocated for reform of the program, as well as the similar H-2A agricultural worker visa, to balance protecting the rights of workers who hold the visa and keeping the system from being used to displace American employees.
Critics say loopholes allow companies to replace American workers with cheaper visa holders. A frequent target of that ire is the group of Indian information technology firms, including Infosys, Tata and Wipro, that have come to dominate the annual lottery for such visas.
Those firms, staffed with workers who generally are paid less than other more highly skilled H1-B workers, essentially offer on-demand technology talent that they rent to other companies. U.S. companies hire them for special projects or use them to staff their own technology teams.
In some cases, U.S. workers slated to be fired have been asked to train their visa-holding replacements before departing.
“Companies are abusing the H-1B visa program,” said Chester West, a 56-year-old software engineer from Kirkland.
West echoed a common critique that the deficit of technology workers in the U.S. is overstated. Part of the problem, he says, is companies tend to favor younger employees, and are loath to retrain workers.
“It’s just how the game is played,” West said.
Legislation introduced last month by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D- Ill., would scrap the H-1B lottery and replace it with a system that favors applicants who went to U.S. universities and hold more advanced skills.
Separate bills from Darrell Issa and Zoe Lofgren, U.S. representatives from California, would push for higher pay for workers in the program.
Those changes, aimed at curbing abuse and the dominance of outsourcing firms, could end up benefiting the likes of Microsoft and Amazon, companies that generally offer higher salaries than firms that do basic technology work.
Many Seattle startups also support reform to the system that would reduce competition from outsourcers, opening more visa spots for startups.
But raising the minimum pay could prove detrimental for the smaller companies, which generally offer lower salaries than the big players.
Meanwhile, if the giants stop bringing talent into the area, local startups will have fewer potential candidates to recruit, said Manny Medina, CEO of Seattle startup Outreach.
“We will significantly be hampered by the inability to poach from Amazon and Microsoft,” he said.
Outreach is hiring a machine-learning team and says some of its best candidates are skilled workers from India and Pakistan employed by other companies in the area. Not allowing entry to such workers, Medina said, could disrupt the pipeline that powers growing companies like his.
Many of those workers wind up founding or leading companies of their own. That includes Medina, who is originally from Ecuador, as well as Microsoft’s Indian-born chief Satya Nadella and Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who is from Iran.
Universities were also watching immigration matters closely, with some UW programs reaching out to all admitted students to reassure them.
Educators caution that restricting visas and banning immigrants from some countries outright could decrease the appetite of international students to earn advanced degrees in the U.S.
“The issue here is the students and faculty and visiting scholars and staff who feel really intimidated, and feel that this is no longer an environment in which they are welcome,” said Judy Wasserheit, chair of the UW’s Global Health Department.
Micheal Seng, a recent graduate from UW’s Informatics Department, is hopeful the changes would cut out less-qualified applicants and leave the core of the program intact.
Seng, a software designer at BitTitan who was born in Indonesia, was chosen in the lottery last year and said the U.S. is seen as a beacon for cutting-edge startups and investors.
“Right now, I’m just hoping for the best and I hope the U.S. will know what is right and what is wrong and really stand on their beliefs,” he said.
Making new plans
For some, the damage is already done.
Moein, an Iranian who works at Microsoft, achieved his version of the American dream a few weeks ago. The software engineer and his wife, also an Iranian-born Microsoftie, moved into their new condo in Issaquah.
“We were ready to call this place home,” said Moein, who asked that only his first name be used.
The travel ban put an end to the couple’s aims to go to Iran this spring to celebrate their marriage, with relatives unable to attend a smaller ceremony in Seattle a year ago. Their pending Microsoft-sponsored green cards, already approved by U.S. immigration authorities, now may undergo another review.
“Overnight, it was all crushed,” Moein said.
Last month, the couple would have said they were in the Seattle area for the long haul.
Now, they’re considering a move to Canada.