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Silicon Valley Worries as Government Cracks Down on Specialty Worker Visas

Tech leaders and workers in Silicon Valley fear the implications of a government crackdown on visas for highly specialized foreign workers.
A man holds a U.S. flag while receiving his proof of U.S. citizenship during a ceremony in San Francisco
A man holds a U.S. flag while receiving his proof of U.S. citizenship during a ceremony in San Francisco, California January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

As President Donald Trump criticized the H-1B specialty worker visa program and signed an executive order to — in his words — "finally put America first" Tuesday, tech leaders and workers in Silicon Valley feared what the implications could be for those who rely on the program.

"I'm just generally worried about us cracking down on a category of immigrant or non-immigrant visas that I believe is very important for the company and for the company's competitiveness in general," said Bastian Lehmann of Postmates, an on-demand delivery service in more than 300 cities nationwide.

In recent weeks, the Department of Justice has warned employers that they must not "discriminate" against American workers, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has vowed to conduct more site visits of companies hiring employees with H-1B visas in order to prevent fraud.

"I think it will be more difficult to have access to the best talent," said Lehmann, in response to these recent measures and an overall climate of uncertainty around the administration's immigration policies.

Related: Silicon Valley's Response to Trump's Presidency

Foreign Workers Under Increased Scrutiny

The highly competitive H-1B visa program grants 85,000 foreigners with advanced degrees the opportunity to work in their highly specialized field in the U.S., with company sponsorship and for three years. It was created by Congress in 1990 and recipients are selected through a lottery system.

But on Tuesday, President Trump brought the visa program under even more scrutiny.

"We are sending a powerful sign to the world to defend workers, protect jobs, and finally put America first," said President Trump at the Snap-on tool factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he signed the executive order. "Right now H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery and that's wrong. They should be given to the most skilled and highest paid applicants, and they should never ever be used to replace Americans," he said.

The executive order instructs the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Labor, and State to review existing procedures, but does not provide specific details nor make immediate changes.

The lack of clarity worries current and future applicants of the H-1B visa.

Related: Silicon Valley's Visceral Reaction to Trump's Immigration Ban

27-year-old Shraddha Lanka left India to study for her Master's in Health Informatics at the University of San Francisco, and says the job market was much more promising when she came to the United States in 2015.

"There's just a lot of uncertainty in the climate with regards to what will happen or what rules might change," said Lanka in an interview with NBC News.

"One of the recruiters actually told me that, 'We do believe that immigrants make America great, but at this point, because of the uncertain climate, we’re not able to take this forward.'" Lanka is currently in the country on a student visa, and is using her time until graduation to look for a job willing to sponsor her down the road.

"The skill set that I have or most of my colleagues have are very specialized," Lanka told NBC News. "So I am not taking away anybody's job."

A Mandate to 'Hire American'

Critics of the visa program say it has been abused and can be used to hire less highly specialized workers.

Acting Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services James McCament — charged with deciding which applicants for a specialty worker visa are approved — told NBC's Jo Ling Kent in an interview Tuesday that the recent crackdown of that H-1B visa system was a "fresh look" by the new administration.

Related: Why the Government Is Taking a More Targeted Approach to H-1B Visas

McCament said his agency's priority is detecting and preventing fraud, including by increasing site visits and with the creation of a new tipline for reporting suspected fraud in the visa system. Tips can now be submitted by using the email address

Acting Director McCament said the primary goal of his agency is to ensure foreign workers "who are working are not inadvertently or intentionally taking away jobs from willing, able and qualified workers" from the United States.

But some in Silicon Valley say the executive order and recent warnings foster a feeling of uncertainty for future visa-holders and the companies that sponsor them.

On Monday, Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka said on an earnings call with investors that his company will expand hiring locally in order to “mitigate any potential risks from visa regulations in the U.S.”

"The whole reason I came here was so that I could, like, make this big impact... doing something great," said Lanka. "I'm not getting a chance to do it. So it's a little sad for me. And I hope that changes soon."