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For Silicon Valley, a Worker Pipeline Cut Off

In this Thursday, June 30, 2016 photo, Babson College graduate school alumnus Abhinav Sureka, of Mumbai, India, right, types in his work space at the college in Wellesley, Mass.

Tech executives said Monday they were disappointed in the Trump administration’s decision to temporarily ban an array of work visas, including those used by the technology industry. Some vowed to open up or expand their operations overseas.

“Banning all H1B visas means CEOs like me have to open offices and hire more people in countries like Canada that allow immigration,” tweeted Anshu Sharma, chief executive of a data privacy firm in Silicon Valley.

“Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today,” Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, said on Twitter. “Disappointed by today’s proclamation.”

The executive order expanded on restrictions the White House rolled out in April. In its statement, the White House cited the current economic hardship in the U.S. where the unemployment rate is more than 13 percent.

“President Trump’s efforts will ensure businesses look to American workers first when hiring,” the White House said in a statement. “Many workers have been hurt through no fault of their own due to coronavirus and they should not remain on the sidelines while being replaced by new foreign labor.”

Reliance on foreign workers

During periods of high growth, the technology industry has relied on the H-1B, a temporary work visa that brings as many as 85,000 skilled workers to the U.S. each year. While tech companies have had layoffs during the pandemic, the labor market is still tight, said Russell Hancock, the chief executive and president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a nonprofit organization that studies the region.

“Tech is pretty much working at full employment,” he said. “The pandemic hasn't hurt tech as it has hurt other sectors.”

Silicon Valley’s foreign-born workers mostly hail from India and China. More than 60 percent of those working in computer, mathematics and engineering fields in Silicon Valley are foreign born, according to the 2020 Silicon Valley Index, produced by Joint Venture.

Tech companies have argued that they need foreign-born workers – and an expansion of the temporary work visa program -- because there are not enough U.S.-born workers with the skills for key roles. Opponents of the temporary visa say that the industry and large tech consultants turn to foreign workers to keep wages down.

Cutting off the ability of skilled workers to come to the U.S. will hurt the industry’s ability to stay competitive, Hancock said.

“If you talk to anyone, they will tell you we need talent and it's not coming through our own pipelines,” he said.

It’s a point echoed by tech leaders.

“In the digital economy, you hire where the talent is,” tweeted Aaron Levie, the chief executive at Box, a tech firm. “When you restrict immigration, the jobs still get created, just somewhere else. And later down the road, when those individuals create the next Google, it won’t be here.”