The Silicon Valley innovation machine is the envy of the world. It’s where the most ambitious entrepreneurs go to start their world-changing companies. But President Donald Trump’s latest action to restrict immigration may needlessly risk the future of this key strategic asset. Perhaps, instead, we shouldn’t mess with something that is working.
On Monday, Trump signed an executive order that freezes access to a number of work visas through year-end, including the H-1B visa for highly-skilled foreigners, which is primarily given to workers in the technology industry. The issuance of new green cards will also stay halted until the end of the year. The administration said the order would free up jobs for unemployed Americans, adding it would block about 500,000 people from entering the country this year. The move sparked an avalanche of criticism from technology companies. They said the measures will hurt their ability to recruit talent and have deeper negative ramifications for the economy. An Amazon.com Inc. spokesperson called the order “shortsighted,” adding it prevents “high skilled professionals from entering the country and contributing to America’s economic recovery, [putting] American’s global competitiveness at risk.” A Facebook Inc. representative said Trump is using the pandemic as justification for “limiting” immigration, which will make “our country’s recovery even more difficult.” And Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith said on social media, “Now is not the time to cut our nation off from the world’s talent or create uncertainty and anxiety.”
Big Tech is right. One of America’s biggest advantages is its thriving ecosystem of innovation and technical leadership surrounding its large technology companies and startups. It is fueled by pioneering immigrant engineers coming in from around the world. According to Bond Capital’s latest “internet Trends” presentation, about 60% of the U.S.’s most highly valued technology companies were founded by first- or second-generation Americans. For example, Google parent Alphabet Inc., with its trillion-dollar market valuation, was started by Sergey Brin, a first-generation Russian immigrant. And Nvidia Corp. founder Jensen Huang immigrated from Taiwan. The government should consider the fact that employment isn’t a zero-sum game. If they block the entry of the next great immigrant founder, we could miss out on a potentially large amount of job creation as well.
Already, companies outside the U.S. know this reality and are jockeying to take advantage. Shopify Inc. CEO Tobias Lutke, whose company is based in Canada, tweeted: “If this affects your plans, consider coming to Canada instead. Shopify is hiring all over the world and we have lots of experience helping with relocation.” A partner at a U.K.-based venture capital firm extolled the virtues of his country’s “global talent visa” program. So, suffice it to say, others are more than willing to scoop up the world’s talented immigrants.
Sadly, Trump’s immigration policy changes may already have inflicted lasting damage on America’s technology industry future. Potential immigrants may now decide to go elsewhere amid the uncertainty brought on by the visa suspensions. Why risk uprooting your family and career if the rules can change on an executive order whim? Cloud software startup Databricks co-founder Reynold Xin says his company, which now employs 1,400 people, has four immigrant founders who moved to the U.S. to “work with the best minds in the world.” But the success story wouldn’t have happened in the U.S. if they started the company in 2020, he added.
That’s a problem. If our country doesn’t attract the founders for the next Google or Databricks as the preeminent land of opportunity, it will only embolden the U.S.’s biggest rivals such as China and Europe. Barring the best and brightest from our shores for any time period is simply self-destructive behavior and will harm our competitiveness. It’s a silly risk to take.