In 2018, President Donald Trump made good on his campaign promise to reshape the U.S. immigration system. While stories of immigrant children separated from their families and military forces deployed to the border made the most eye-catching headlines, the Trump administration also made significant changes to the legal immigration system that could have far-reaching consequences.
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Immigration is a marquee issue for the tech industry. Immigrant entrepreneurs founded 43 percent of 2017’s Fortune 500 firms and big tech companies rely on the ability to recruit skilled workers abroad when faced with talent shortages domestically.
Over the past year, tech leaders have been vocal about the Trump administration’s changes, particularly those that could have the greatest impact on the industry.
Here’s a review of the immigration policy changes over the past year that could have the biggest repercussions for the innovation economy.
In February, the federal government announced plans to expand the information and documentation required from companies applying for H-1B visas, the type tech employers use to hire skilled workers from other countries. The goal was to apply more scrutiny to third-party staffing agencies a.k.a. “outsourcing firms” which have been criticized for flooding the H-1B lottery system with applications.
That was the start of a series of changes to the H-1B designed to crack down on abuse and make the visa category more selective. That effort saw early success in fiscal year 2017, when H-1B visas awarded to tech companies increased while IT staffing firms saw a decrease. Amazon’s H-1B visa approvals surged 78 percent that year.
On December 3, USCIS and DHS published a proposed rule that would prioritize H-1B applications for workers with advanced degrees from American universities. The agencies are accepting public comments on the proposal until Jan 2.
These changes are designed to implement a system for awarding visas based more on merit than chance. While some in the tech industry, like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, welcome reform of the H-1B visa, others are concerned that it will make it more difficult to recruit talent internationally.
International Entrepreneur Rule
In May, DHS moved forward with its plan to rescind the International Entrepreneur Rule, a policy that allowed foreign-born startup founders to launch and grow their companies in the U.S. for several years.
President Barack Obama enacted the IER as a pathway for foreign-born entrepreneurs to build their companies in the U.S. after Congress failed to pass a true “startup visa.”
There is no real avenue for international entrepreneurs to get authorization to build their companies in the U.S., though tech leaders have been lobbying for a startup visa for years.
The public comment period for the removal of the IER closed on June 28 and there has not been an update from DHS since.
In April, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee announcing plans to stop allowing spouses of H-1B visa holders to apply for work permits. The change has not yet taken effect but if and when it does, it will reverse a 2015 rule that made spouses eligible for permits to work in the U.S. DHS has delayed the rule-changing process several times.
Although the policy change is still looming, the uncertainty is already affecting immigrants living and working in the U.S. on H-4 visas. Many of them cite increased delays in the amount of time it takes to process employment authorization documents. In the past, USCIS was required to process those applications within 90 days. But the Trump administration rescinded the 90-day rule, which means applicants are now waiting six months or more to receive their documents.
In June, after more than a year of legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed President Donald Trump’s authority to restrict immigration from several majority Muslim countries. The court’s ruling applied to the third iteration of the so-called “travel ban” after lower courts repeatedly struck down the administration’s initial attempts to bar citizens of certain countries from entering the U.S.
The decision was a blow to progressive politicians — like Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson — and tech companies — like Amazon and Expedia — who fought and successfully blocked the first iteration of the travel ban.
Public charge rule
In September, the Trump administration announced a proposed regulation that would expand the definition of a “public charge,” a policy change that could make it harder for immigrants to qualify for green cards and visas. The government has the authority to deny green cards to immigrants who are a “public charge,” historically interpreted to mean dependent on federal assistance. The new policy would expand that definition to immigrants who use “one or more public benefits,” have done so in the past or are likely to do so in the future.
Leaders of more than 120 U.S. companies spoke out against the proposed regulation. At the request of Seattle startup Boundless Immigration, they submitted an open letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security opposing the policy.