Silicon Valley's message to Biden on undoing Trump's immigration record: Move faster

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SAN FRANCISCO — The inauguration of President Joe Biden raised hopes in the tech industry that after four years of restrictive immigration policies, Silicon Valley might see an open pipeline of whip-smart engineers and entrepreneurs arriving from overseas.

So far, though, the change hasn’t been that dramatic.

Although the Biden administration drew cheers this week for ending a Trump-era ban on certain kinds of visas that are widely used in the tech industry, lawyers and others say that Biden’s overall record on skilled immigration has been mixed as he slowly makes modest changes in a few areas while leaving his options open in others.

“Change is not happening fast enough under the Biden administration, and it is critical that it does,” said immigration lawyer Ashima Duggal, who represents tech entrepreneurs, scientists and investors.

The fact that tech companies aren’t getting everything they want on immigration policy may be a result of how busy the Biden administration is as it initially focuses on other priorities, including vaccinating Americans against Covid-19, boosting the near-term economy and responding to a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But it also demonstrates that tech executives may have some convincing to do in Washington, despite their longstanding ties to prominent Democratic politicians.

“Businesses have to remember that this is a Democratic administration and not necessarily favorable to business immigration as much," said Sophie Alcorn, an immigration lawyer who represents startup founders and others in the tech industry. "That’s not the priority.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the Biden administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the criticism.

The tech industry is more reliant than any other sector of the economy on raw talent and skilled labor from overseas. Immigrants started or now lead many of the industry’s biggest companies including Google and Microsoft, and in the Bay Area, more than half of tech workers were born abroad, according to a 2018 review of census data by The Seattle Times.

It’s also an industry that former President Donald Trump targeted for restrictions during his four years in the White House, arguing that immigrants were taking jobs from Americans.

Trump imposed a series of bureaucratic and regulatory changes that, according to immigration lawyers, limited the number of available visas, extended the time it took to apply and led to denials of applications that should have been accepted under existing law.

“These individuals who are applying are scientists, are artists, are Grammy winners, and they’re clearly qualified under the requirements, and they’re being either denied or having to jump through hoops and hurdles to prove their case,” Duggal said.

“That’s still happening. There has not been a shift,” she said.

To unwind his actions, Biden doesn’t necessarily need new laws — Trump didn’t make major changes to immigration law itself — but he may need to rebuild agencies that help enforce them such as the State Department and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Duggal described one client who applied for an EB-1 visa, a category that applies to immigrants of extraordinary ability including people who have had a “leading or critical role in distinguished organizations.” He had founded two startups and served as a CEO, but immigration officers denied his application, she said.

“They just blatantly said, ‘We are not convinced that a CEO serves in a critical role,’” she said.

In other areas of immigration policy, tech industry lobbying groups are waiting on formal action to back up statements from the Biden administration.

The National Venture Capital Association and other organizations sent a letter to the Homeland Security Department in February, asking the department to add more resources to a visa program intended for startup founders. The program was started during the Obama administration, but then put on hold during the Trump administration and never fully implemented.

“There is currently no visa category designed for foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to found companies in the U.S. and deliver all the benefits of new company formation to our country,” the letter said.

Lobbyists for universities are making their own push for changes that would boost international student enrollment, a key part of the talent pipeline for Silicon Valley. Enrollment stalled during the first years of the Trump administration and then fell 43 percent after the pandemic hit.

“What we saw under the Trump administration were a lot of changes and proposed changes that caused our international students and institutions to wonder what is going to happen next,” said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations for the American Council on Education.

“The Biden administration could do a lot by talking about the importance of international students,” she said, though the group also sent a letter to the administration in March asking for quicker visa processing and other help.

Potential immigrants and employers are waiting to see what the Biden administration does with H-1B visas, a category that applies to specialty workers. The Trump administration had planned to scrap the lottery system for allocating H-1B visas and switch to a wage-based system. Biden put that plan on hold in February, without detailing future plans.

Meanwhile, lawyers said that delays for visa processing and for consulate interviews remain common under Biden, in part because the Trump administration brought home overseas consular staff at the start of the pandemic.

The Biden administration also hasn’t said what it plans to do with a Trump-era rule requiring visa applicants to disclose their social media identifiers, a rule that tech companies including Twitter and Reddit have argued violates free speech guarantees. Biden has asked officials for a report by late May on whether the rule “has meaningfully improved screening and vetting.”

Still, Duggal said she was hopeful the Biden administration would do more.

“If those numbers don’t increase quickly, the U.S. economy is going to feel that for years to come, and especially California and Silicon Valley,” she said.

“That is a significant source of growth in the U.S. economy — for revenues, for employment — and that entire ecosystem is in danger because of the lack of visas available for entrepreneurs and professionals.”