America must resist the protectionist perspective

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) saw a decline in annual H-1B visa petitions for the second time since 2017. Nine thousand fewer people applied this year, compared to last year, and 37,000 fewer people applied last year as compared to the previous.

And while the number of applicants decreased, the 190,098 H-1B petitions received during the most recent filing period are still far more than the statutory cap of 65,000 and the master’s cap of 20,000 per year. The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals in specialty occupations.

The decline in H-1B petitions is particularly significant when you look at the trend of how employers are beginning to re-evaluate how they do business in this climate of increased immigration scrutiny.

Envoy Global, a global immigration services provider in Chicago, released an immigration report aggregating the responses of 171 San Francisco hiring managers to a survey conducted late last year regarding global talent hiring behavior. Most significantly, 82 percent of San Francisco employers agreed the complexity and uncertainty of the U.S. immigration system has changed the way they think about global hiring. Thirty-three percent are hiring fewer foreign nationals, 25 percent have had to delay projects and 29 percent have had to increase budgets.

Forty-one percent of employers in San Francisco said positions are taking longer to fill, which means many positions go unfilled. The Wall Street Journal reported that 548,000 tech jobs remain open in the tech industry.

The surprising finding in the report is that, while nationally the expectation is that demand for foreign talent will increase, only 32 percent of employers in San Francisco predict a similar increase for workers from abroad.

Richard Burke, CEO of Envoy Global, believes there are three reasons for this.

First, San Francisco employers are used to dealing with immigration challenges and aren’t inclined to “over-index job skills shortage.” In other words, employers are planning for a stagnant stream of skilled foreign workers. Second, the tech industry is reasonably comfortable with remote work arrangements. With video conferencing service options, the need to be physically present at one location is diminishing. Lastly, the San Francisco tech industry is successful at upscaling employees through internal training. Employees are being trained to handle other specialty positions within companies, to reduce the demand for potential hires.

The Envoy Global report also differentiated tech companies from other sectors, which revealed striking disparities in the responses. Here’s a sampling:

Businesses that expect their foreign national headcount to increase

Non-Tech: 34 percent

Tech: 24 percent

Businesses that have experienced an increase in Requests for Evidence

Non-Tech: 44 percent

Tech: 68 percent

Businesses that believe foreign nationals are important to talent acquisition strategy

Non-Tech: 52 percent

Tech: 46 percent

Businesses that hire fewer foreign nationals due to the current U.S. immigration system

Non-Tech: 25 percent

Tech: 51 percent

Businesses that are more likely to hire foreign nationals because of the current administration

Non-Tech: 21 percent

Tech: 11 percent

Under the watch of the Trump administration, immigration challenges for employers and foreign nationals include increased requests for evidence, decreased transparency into the process, increased complexity, cost and length of time to prepare applications, as well as more petition denials than ever before. Immigration optimism is down, and managing employee expectations and anxiety has increased for employers.

All these are probable causes for the decline in H-1B applications.

At a journalism panel organized by the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford on Monday, Siddharth Varadarajan, a seasoned journalist, editor, economist and recipient of the 2017 Shorenstein Journalism Award, said this heightened anti-immigrant mindset does not bode well, particularly when it comes to America’s economic growth, but also in its relations with other countries.

“Why is the U.S. the only rich country whose population is growing? That’s because the U.S. has always had a rational approach to immigration,” Varadarajan remarked.

American productivity is seeded by engaging labor from around the world. A protectionist perspective will be harmful in the long run. Jobs will remain unfulfilled, and the focus of our innovation will change. While some industries face a surfeit of domestic labor, others have a paucity. In order to stay competitive in a global market, it is imperative that America continues its policy of taking in the best of the best, especially in technology and science. It’s not about replacing American workers but filling in for American workers.

We have a situation where specialty international talent is readily available, and demand is high for some skills in many of the industrialized nations. America has always had dibs on the best talent because of its diversity and inclusive policies. With doors shutting in the U.S., other countries will benefit.

Take Canada, for instance. According to Daniel Culbertson an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, “Nearly all signs indicate that the Canadian labor market is close to firing on all cylinders.”

The Canadian government saw the writing on America’s wall and launched Global Talent Stream on June 12. The program processes and approves highly skilled foreign technology workers to enter Canada with a temporary foreign worker visa within two weeks.

Varadarajan agreed with this assessment of Canada’s moment of opportunity.

“If Trump is going to turn his back on migrant labor, then he’s sowing the seeds for the eventual decline of American economic power,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. Canada will benefit economically from the fact that it’s more open, and I think the U.S.’s loss will be Canada’s gain.”

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

Jaya Padmanabhan
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Jaya Padmanabhan

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