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Tightening Immigration Policy Could Hurt The Tech Sector

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The current U.S. Administration's tough stance on immigration has attracted a lot of criticism from U.S. tech companies that rely heavily on skilled foreign workers from around the world, and the situation has become dire enough to prompt giant Microsoft to announce that it might have to move jobs out of the United States.

In a new interview with CNBC, Microsoft Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said that that the tightening the immigration policies could result in “hundreds of employees [losing] their ability to work in the United States”.

“We don’t want to move jobs out of the United States and we hope that we don’t see decision making in Washington that would force us to do that…We’re not going to cut people loose. We’re going to stand behind them…In the world of technology you better stand behind your people because your people are your most valuable asset,” Smith said.

But two policies have Microsoft—and other tech giants--quite worried.

An Obama Administration rule that allowed the spouses of people with non-immigrant H-1B visas to work is now being threatened. That rule was a big one for the tech industry. The Trump Administration has proposed revoking that rule and the spousal removal from this work authorization was originally scheduled to start in June 2017. It was delayed, but the uncertainty remains. If spouses can’t work, it will cut down on the number of people willing to take high-level tech jobs. Related: Is This The Answer To The Looming U.S. Healthcare Crisis?

The Trump Administration is also targeting another rule that has allowed international students to work while applying for visas. In large part, these changes target student visas for Chinese citizens. For now, and as of June this year, there will be additional screening parameters for visas for Chinese citizens studying sensitive tech subjects, ranging from artificial intelligence to robotics. It’s designed to prevent intellectual property theft.

The question this raises is two-fold: First, how do we protect intellectual property while at the same time depending on predominately Chinese and Indian individuals to form the biggest brain pool of the most strategic industry we have? Second, what happens when big tech companies can’t move forward because there aren’t enough tech-savvy Americans to fill the gaps and jobs get moved overseas?

A recent survey showed that some 45 percent of Americans believe that H-1B visa holders are eating into jobs meant for local workers. While that sentiment is less prevalent in California’s Silicon Valley where only 20 percent view jobs in jeopardy by foreigners, it’s still the driving notion behind Trump’s anti-immigration policies.

Microsoft and many other tech companies are concerned at the potential loss of talent from China and India, which make up nearly half of America’s international student body.

The loss, in fact, is already being felt. Just on the reverberations of the Administration’s clear sentiment, last year there was a 17-percent drop in international students in the U.S. There was a 28-percent drop in Indian students and a 24-percent drop in Chinese students receiving visas.

Some 1.1 million foreign students contributed $36.9 billion and supported more than 450,000 jobs during the 2016-2017 school year in the U.S., according to the Association of International Educators (NAFSA).

Chinese students contributed $11 billion to the U.S. economy, while students from India contributed another $5 billion just over 2017.

Also, according to the 2016 study by the National Foundation for American Policy, immigrants have been the catalyst for more than half (44 of 87) of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion or more. Together, that means immigrants have been behind highly innovative companies that are worth $168 billion in total.

Related: UK Regulators Hit Facebook With £500,000 Fine

It’s a tricky thing trying to keep foreigners out of tech in a country that relies on foreigners for tech. And it could mean losing the advantage, with Canada already being one of the biggest beneficiaries of U.S. sentiment, along with Germany and Asian countries—all of which have become more popular destinations for the tech savvy since the 2016 elections.

So, it’s not at all surprising that Microsoft is also talking with the Canadian government to safeguard its employees. It’s even created a new development center in Vancouver that serves as a “bit of a safety valve”, according to Smith.

Safeguarding technological innovation is also a strategic urgency; but if we have no tech to safeguard and we give the advantage to others by handing them the best brains in the business, then this all backfires. 

By Michael Kern for Safehaven.com

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