The Technology 202: Here's one immigration policy the Trump administration and Silicon Valley can agree on

The Technology 202: Here’s one immigration policy the Trump administration and Silicon Valley can agree on

Originally Published in The Washington Post.

By Cat Zakrzewski

February 1, 2019

L. Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at the White House in Washington on Dec. 12, 2017. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) 

Technology titans stand to benefit from a Trump administration change to  the rule governing immigration for high-skilled workers, which could bring a rare break in two years of acrimony between Silicon Valley and the White House on immigration policy. 

The Department of Homeland Security introduced changes to the high-skilled worker visa lottery this week that aim to improve the chances for immigrants with a master’s degree or higher from U.S. schools. The change could be a boost for top technology giants that heavily recruit engineers with advanced degrees, while potentially lowering the chances for IT contracting firms known for inundating the system with applications for lower-paying positions. The change goes into effect in April. 

Technology companies want H-1B visas because they’re often the most expeditious way to bring top foreign tech talent into their U.S. offices. But with only 85,000 H-1B visas awarded each year, it’s also a fiercely competitive process -- and the biggest tech companies are pleased with any advantages they can get. 

“Intel relies on the ability to hire the best talent to build the next generation of innovations and to be competitive in the global marketplace, and this encourages the best and brightest minds to work in and for America,” Intel said. 

The changes were also applauded by tech workers' unions. 

“It’s a step in the right direction," said Rennie Sawade, a spokesman for a union representing tech workers The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers and a Microsoft employee. “H-1B hasn’t been overhauled in a long time.”

The H-1B system has changed little since the dawn of the Internet, and tech companies have long been pushing for reform to improve the visa system for highly in-demand tech workers. 

Yet the issue has largely taken a back seat as immigration emerged as perhaps the most contentious issue between the White House and Silicon Valley during the Trump administration. Technology executives have railed against policies ranging from the travel ban on foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries to efforts to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And politically charged debates over the border wall have sucked up all the oxygen in Washington. 

“When you deal with something like a border wall or DACA, it tends to be the elephant in every room,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, a high-skilled immigration coalition whose members include Amazon and Facebook. “Everything you’re trying to get done it sits behind that.”

The tech industry is welcoming the latest news, but it's still more incremental than what most reform advocates would like to see.

Already, applicants with advanced degrees had an edge because only they were allowed to participate in a lottery for 20,000 visas. Then those who did not win moved on to the general lottery for the remaining 65,000 slots. But with its new rule, DHS is reversing the order of the lotteries, so all applicants with master’s first get a shot at the general pool. The new order will decrease the odds for workers who have a bachelor's degree.

The change could result in up to 5,340 more immigrants with advanced degrees gaining a visa, according to a statement from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

“These simple and smart changes are a positive benefit for employers, the foreign workers they seek to employ, and the agency’s adjudicators, helping the H-1B visa program work better,” said USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna in a statement. 

Yet some advocates aren't sure if prioritizing advanced degrees is the best way to ensure the H-1B system allows companies to hire top tech talent.

Corley said companies rely on technologists with a wide range of degrees to help them keep their edge against competitors, and that a degree is not an adequate way to measure whether a worker is the best person to work on a new technology. He wants to see Congress take up legislation that would more directly address the issues with the H-1B process today. Because it's so hard to get an H-1B visa and they're tied to specific positions, many workers feel they can't leave those jobs and it limits their employment options, he said. 

“Simply saying we’re going to focus on master's degrees doesn’t solve any of those challenges,” Corley said. 

The change could also increase pressure for foreign nationals seeking to work at tech companies to obtain advanced degrees. Lisa Spiegel, head of the Immigration Practice Group at Duane Morris LLP in San Francisco, says many workers trying to obtain H-1B visas were already obtaining master’s degrees to gain more chances at the lottery. 

“I think the reality is people are going to start looking at U.S. master's degrees as part of the criteria when they hire a foreign national,” Spiegel told me. 

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