President Joe Biden continued unwinding the previous administration’s controversial immigration agenda Tuesday through a series of executive orders.
Over the past four years, tech industry stakeholders have emerged as staunch opponents to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, which restricted legal migration as well as unlawful border crossings.
Tech leaders are celebrating Biden’s early action on immigration, though it’s clear his administration is prioritizing issues that affect families and the most vulnerable immigrants over the skilled workers that are critical to the tech industry.
The executive orders Biden signed Tuesday are no exception. He created a task force to reunite families separated at the border. Biden also ordered reviews of a program that requires asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are processed and a rule that allows green cards to be denied if officials consider immigrants likely to use public benefits.
The latest executive orders are in line with previous actions and an immigration reform bill that Biden unveiled on his first day in office, which focuses on family and humanitarian issues.
Though Biden’s early immigration actions do include some wins for the tech industry, it’s unclear if he’ll tackle the broader systemic issues that impact tech talent and entrepreneurship. Still, industry leaders who track these issues closely are optimistic.
“For tech leaders, it sends a signal that America’s open for business and that we’re going to do what’s right for our country and continue to do what’s right for immigrants that are building a lot of the products that we all enjoy,” said Matt Oppenheimer, CEO of Remitly, a Seattle startup that helps immigrants send money back to their home countries.
Public charge rule
One immigration victory for the tech industry came Tuesday when Biden ordered a review a Trump-era policy known as the “public charge rule.” The rule allows immigration officials to deny green cards to applicants who have used public benefits in the past or who appear likely to need them in the future.
Although the public charge rule puts low-income immigrant workers in the greatest peril, it increases the complexity for everyone seeking a green card by making them prove they are unlikely to need government assistance. Under the rule, applicants have to prove that they are unlikely to use benefits like Medicaid, food stamps and section 8 housing, as well as healthcare and housing subsidies in many cases.
“Even if the employee is eligible to work for your company, if they’re spending their nights and weekends trying to put together this 400-to-900 page application, it’s detrimental to their mindshare,” said Xiao Wang, CEO of Boundless Immigration, a Seattle startup that uses software to help immigrants apply for green cards and citizenship.
“There’s definitely a practical purpose where rolling back the public charge rule will help with employee productivity, morale, and other things that are good for the company,” he said.
Earlier this year, Boundless enlisted more than 100 tech companies to sign a brief condemning the public charge rule as a threat to innovation, as part of a lawsuit challenging the policy. Microsoft, Reddit, Redfin, and Twitter were among the signatories.
Immigrant tech workforce
Many in the tech industry also breathed a sigh of relief when Biden withdrew Trump’s plan to block the spouses of skilled immigrants from working in the U.S.
Companies including Amazon and Microsoft rely heavily on the H-1B visa, which allows them to hire specialized foreign-born workers for jobs in the U.S. temporarily. The spouses of those visa holders are authorized to work in the U.S. themselves under a category called H-4 employment authorization. The vast majority of H-4 holders are highly skilled women from India and they faced an uncertain future in the U.S. under Trump’s plan to withdraw their employment authorization. Biden officially canceled that plan on Jan. 25.
Though that policy is a relief for many immigrant families brought to the U.S. for tech jobs, the overall fate of the H-1B visa program remains uncertain. During the final weeks of the Trump presidency, his administration issued two changes to the H-1B visa that could still be implemented.
As of now, H-1B visas are awarded through a lottery system, which critics say is easy to abuse. In January, the Department of Homeland Security issued a rule that would change how the visas are awarded. Instead of a lottery, visas would go to the highest-paid roles first. The change was scheduled to take effect March 9.
The Department of Labor also issued a rule in January that would increase the minimum wage companies must offer H-1B candidates to qualify for the visa program. That rule was set to go into effect on March 15.
“These two changes, if they end up still going into effect, will have a huge impact on the tech industry and will disproportionately hurt smaller companies and startups as well as new grads out of American schools with engineering programs,” said Wang, noting that it will be easier for big companies like Microsoft and Amazon to comply with the new rules.
Both rules are under a 60-day freeze by the Biden administration but Wang is doubtful they will be rescinded entirely because the old system for awarding H-1B visas is fraught. So-called “outsourcing firms” have a history of flooding the lottery system with applications and sending a rotation of contract workers to the U.S. for jobs that many believe Americans could otherwise fill.
Immigration reform bill
Biden’s immigration reform bill includes some key tech industry priorities, like a provision that makes it easier for foreign-born STEM graduates to remain in the U.S. and another that lifts some per-country limits on worker green cards, which have resulted in years-long backlogs. But the bill prioritizes the pressing needs of undocumented immigrants and precarious programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and guest farmworker visas. It also earmarks funds to address upstream causes of migration, like instability in Central American countries.
“Immigrants have always been and continue to be America’s largest competitive advantage and our country, our economy, our culture, and the nation is really rich and vibrant because of immigrants,” said Oppenheimer. “The president’s swift action on immigration reform really honors that and recognizes that.”
Although the bill doesn’t address everything on tech’s wishlist, it could have secondary repercussions for the industry. The bill seeks to relieve long visa backlogs for family-based and employment-based green card applications, which Wang says could result in more talent mobility in the tech industry.
“There are a lot of people who are currently spending six to 10 years at Amazon or Microsoft or Google or Facebook because they can’t leave until they received their green card,” he said. If the bill increases processing times significantly, Wang expects “to see a lot more entrepreneurial behavior and a lot more talent going to smaller companies.”
“That’s the exciting second-order effect for the startup ecosystem, especially the ecosystem geographically around these large behemoths,” Wang added. “Seattle is going to be a great beneficiary of it.”
Lasting Trump legacy
Despite Biden’s concerted effort to chart a new course on immigration, some in the tech industry are concerned that Trump’s legacy will not be so easily undone. Early in the Trump presidency, countries such as Canada promoted immigrant-friendly policies to recruit international talent as an alternative to the U.S.
“There are countries that have gotten momentum and are drawing more talent, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” Wang said.
The pandemic has also taught many tech companies that they can operate efficient remote teams without needing to move workers to the U.S. through a lengthy and complex immigration process.
“People are going to be more comfortable with hiring people who do not live in their near vicinity,” Wang said. “I think that those two trends will make us less attractive as a destination for a lot of people.”
Still, the tune of the tech industry is largely optimistic in the wake of Biden’s victory, with Apple, Google, Twitter, Uber all celebrating his early immigration actions.
“I’m hoping that the last several years has been an aberration and that we’ll get back to the American values and principles that have made our country phenomenal and what it is today,” said Oppenheimer. “You see and feel that recently. Hopefully the best talent around the globe, when they’re thinking about where they want to be to build a better life for themselves and their family, they feel more welcomed and more excited about coming to the U.S. to live and contribute to our economy and build businesses and and contribute culturally to the country.”