Austin tech leaders express concern over Trump administration suspension of visas


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Business leaders in Austin’s growing technology industry are warning of a potential slowdown of innovation, and the creation of jobs, caused by the Trump administration’s recent suspension of certain visas for foreign workers.

On June 22, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily suspending three visa programs — H-1B for high-skilled workers, L-1 for intercompany transfers, and the H-2B for seasonal workers — through the end of 2020 because of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” Trump said in the executive order.

BACKGROUND: Trump administration extends visa ban to non-immigrants

Technology and healthcare companies are especially dependent on H-1B visas, 85,000 of which are granted in a lottery each year. The process is costly and time-consuming for companies but grants them access to highly-skilled foreign nationals.

Bjorn Billhardt, CEO of Abilitie, has created more than 60 jobs in Austin, after coming to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student from Germany and attending the University of Texas.

“If the H-1B program hadn’t existed, I would probably have started a company in Germany and would be employing Germans instead of Americans,” Billhardt told KXAN. “An order like that screams to the world that we don’t want people to come here.”

Billhardt acknowledges that the H-1B program has flaws, and needs reforms, with some companies abusing the system.

From 2010-16, 8,300 highly-skilled foreign nationals came to Austin on H-1B visas, according to Pew Research. College Station and Dallas received 40,000 and 74,000, respectively, over the same period.

“We’re now, through the end of 2020, looking at shooing away international investors, startups, that can prove they can come to this country, create jobs for American workers, and pump money into our economy,” said Jason Finkelman, an immigration attorney in Austin.

Silicon Labs, a multi-national leading producer of semiconductors headquartered in Austin, relies on foreign talent to innovate and create more jobs for Americans.

Nestor Ho, the company’s general counsel, says if the suspension continues, it could impact up to 10% of its workforce longterm.

“If we cannot get those employees in the United States, we’ll hire those employees outside of the United States.”

In a statement, Austin-based Dell said:

“Attracting the best and brightest requires inclusive policies and practices. The tech industry needs more high-skilled talent to help U.S. companies remain globally competitive and create new businesses and jobs in the U.S.”

Dell spokesperson

Google, which also has a presence in Austin, said:

“Immigrants have not only fueled technological breakthroughs and created new businesses and jobs but have also enriched American life. America’s continued success depends on companies having access to the best talent from around the world. Particularly now, we need that talent to help contribute to America’s economic recovery.”

Google spokesperson

Facebook added:

“President Trump’s latest proclamation uses the Covid-19 pandemic as justification for limiting immigration. In reality, the move to keep highly-skilled talent out of the US will make our country’s recovery even more difficult. America is a nation of immigrants and our economy and country benefit when we encourage talented people from around the world to live, work, and contribute here. That’s more true now than ever. Highly-skilled visa holders play a critical role in driving innovation — at Facebook and at organizations across the country — and that’s something we should encourage, not restrict.”

Facebook spokesperson

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