U.S. President Donald Trump says that he’s on a mission to put Americans first, but as an industry that has historically relied upon its ability to attract the best and brightest from around the world, technology leaders are concerned that some of his rhetoric might impose challenges on their international recruiting efforts.
Though Trump’s executive orders banning immigrants from seven countries were ultimately blocked, the promised reforms to the H-1B visa program for international workers remains to be seen. His overall hostility to immigration may give tech workers from abroad reason to pause before bringing their talents to the U.S.
A decrease in immigration could have a big impact on growth in the tech industry. More than half of all American startups that are valued at $1 billion or more were founded or cofounded by immigrants, according to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy, and the combined value of the U.S.’s immigrant-founded unicorns are approximately equivalent to half the stock markets of Russia or Mexico. The study also found that immigrants were key members of management or product development teams in over 70% of these U.S. success stories.
“We just can’t produce enough people with the requisite skills and knowledge to fill all the jobs in tech, especially on the engineering and programming side,” venture capitalist and political strategist Bradley Tusk tells Fast Company. “If we want our own companies to succeed and keep creating jobs and producing wealth and paying taxes here, we have to have access to talent.”
I spoke to several tech leaders at the Collision conference in New Orleans recently about their predictions on how stricter immigration regulations could impact the tech industry. Here’s what they said.
1. The U.S. May Lose Its Standing As The Top Destination For Free Agents
Tusk likens this longstanding advantage to free agency in sports. “If you can attract all the best players because they want to play for you, you’re going to do really well,” he says, adding that any friction or uncertainty in the immigration process can discourage people from playing for the American team. “Why would you voluntarily take away your greatest inherent advantage?” he asks.
Tusk doubts the president will attempt another travel ban, though he believes that the damage from the first two attempts could linger.
2. Silicon Valley Is At Greater Risk Of Becoming The Next Detroit
Whether or not another drastic change to immigration policy is attempted by the Trump administration, “It is not a good look for the country, that’s for sure,” Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian says.
Ohanian explains that there would be no Reddit without immigration, recalling witnessing his German-born mother’s U.S. citizenship ceremony as one of the proudest moments of his life.
“We still lead the world when it comes to tech innovation, but we can take a lot of lessons from history in knowing that we should not ever be complacent,” he says. “There are countless industries where America has led the world and eventually been usurped.”
Ohanian explains that while it may have taken generations for the U.S. to lose its competitive advantage in other industries, the disruptive nature of technology has the potential to expedite the process.
“In tech, everything moves so quickly, and we embrace that fact, we know it’s the cost of doing business,” he says. “That’s why we want as much innovation in our ecosystem as possible.”
3. U.S. Talent May Become More Costly
Any logjam in the flow of foreign talent to the United States as a result of changing immigration policy has the potential to ramp up competition for domestic talent at home, suggests Russell Smith, the cofounder and chief technology officer of Rainforest, a San Francisco-based application testing platform.
“If H-1B visas get shut down even more than they are now, then the competition will go up, because the big companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, which hire so many people through these programs, will be hungry for people,” he says. “That will make it pretty hard for younger startups to compete.”
4. International Talent May Become More Remote
As British immigrants that employ 50 people in San Francisco and 20 more that work remotely around the world, Smith and his cofounder have found that hiring remote talent abroad has never been easier for American tech employers. Smith suggests that Silicon Valley will remain the center of the technology universe for the foreseeable future, as the home of much of the country’s venture capital funds and corporate headquarters, but that doesn’t mean employees need to actually step foot on American soil.
“We’re hiring from places where they’ve got a good education, good experience, and they’ve moved somewhere without a giant tech scene but are still tech people, so we can hire them, and they can work where they want,” says Smith. “I believe that’s going to the be the future; not having to work in one central location.”
5. Worker Classification May Finally Be Addressed
While the Trump administration’s immigration policies could exacerbate the talent shortage in the tech industry, some believe that his administration is likely to address one key area of concern for many tech employers. With the rise of freelance, gig, and remote workers, the United States still lacks a classification system that addresses this growing segment of the population.
“I don’t think that Trump has any personal view or awareness of this issue, but certainly the needs of labor unions are not a factor in how he or congressional Republicans look at this issue,” says Tusk.
The venture capitalist, who previously served as deputy governor of Illinois, special adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and communications director for Senator Chuck Schumer–suggests that loyalty to labor unions may have prevented the previous administration from addressing the issue. “I think people like Paul Ryan are really interested [in addressing working classification],” he says. “I don’t think anyone at the White House has thought about it at all, but if they put a bill on the president’s desk, he’ll sign it.”
Tusk adds that while hiring foreign talent may become more difficult, the new administration has shown interest in easing burdens for employers when hiring Americans. However, Tusk thinks there just simply isn’t enough domestic talent to keep the country’s technology industry ahead of global competition.