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Tech CEOs blast Trump's new immigration order, but experts say it's 'a lot of bark'

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter were among the well-known tech firms that blasted the policy in the hours after Trump issued it Monday.
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Technology company executives are blasting President Donald Trump’s executive order that freezes new visas for foreign workers.

Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter were among the well-known tech firms that blasted the policy in the hours after Trump issued it Monday.

“Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today,” Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a statement, adding that he was “disappointed by today’s proclamation.’

“We’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all,” said Pichai, himself an immigrant to the United States who was born in India.

Apple CEO Tim Cook echoed those thoughts in a tweet on Tuesday.

"Like Apple, this nation of immigrants has always found strength in our diversity, and hope in the enduring promise of the American Dream," Cook wrote. "There is no new prosperity without both. Deeply disappointed by this proclamation."

The technology industry has been broadly aligned on the topic of immigration, particularly during the Trump administration, stressing that high-skilled foreign workers are a crucial part of its success.

The order itself may not end up providing a substantial blow to the industry. Immigration experts said the order would have a muted impact on Silicon Valley because it exempts anyone who’s already in the U.S.

But the ban on new visas, including those for high-skilled tech workers with H-1B visas, has enormous symbolic importance for tech companies and other industries that depend on a consistent influx of foreign workers, inventors and entrepreneurs.

The ban could have major negative ramifications if Trump were to later expand the types of visas that are covered or continue the ban into 2021, experts said.

The dispute puts the White House at odds with tech companies large and small at a time of crucial importance for all sides. Trump is leaning heavily on social media platforms for his re-election campaign, while the tech world is preparing for the possibility of strict new regulatory action from Washington.

Tech companies were early and vocal critics of Trump’s immigration policies three years ago after he took office, and this time, the industry says the supply of skilled labor from abroad is essential to reviving the economy from the pandemic-induced recession.

“At a critical time for the U.S. economy, it will have a dangerous impact on the economic recovery and growth for years to come,” Jason Oxman, president of the tech trade group Information Technology Industry Council, or ITI, said in a statement. He urged Trump to reconsider the order.

Both Twitter and Amazon called the executive order “short-sighted.” Facebook said Trump was using the pandemic as a justification for limiting immigration.

“This proclamation undermines America’s greatest economic asset: its diversity,” Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s vice president of public policy, said in a statement. “People from all over the world come here to join our labor force, pay taxes and contribute to our global competitiveness on the world stage.”

The order goes into effect Wednesday and will bar the issuance of some new H-1B visas, which generally go to tech workers. It also restricts H-2B visas for low-skill jobs, J visas for those participating in work and student exchanges and L visas for intracompany transfers. The suspension will last until December 31.

These suspensions will be added to an April 22 executive order halting visas for certain family members of green card holders.

Immigration lawyers and advocates said Monday they were fielding a flood of calls and emails from worried clients, both individuals and employers, but they said much of the anxiety was unwarranted based on the details of the order.

Though the U.S. issues up to 85,000 H-1B visas each year for skilled workers, generally more than 90 percent of those go to people who are already in the U.S. on other visas and are converting to the H-1B classification, said Clifton Wu, a lawyer in San Jose, California, who represents tech companies.

Because the executive order exempts entirely people who are already in the U.S., the impact is “very minimal,” he said.

“The bite is not quite there, but there’s a lot of bark,” Clifton said.

Further reducing the impact of the order, many H-1B applications from outside the U.S. were already slowed because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said. “U.S. consulates and embassies have been closed for that type of application for several months now because of COVID-19,” he said.

There’s even an exemption in the order for people who are outside the U.S. currently but who have valid visas already in their passports, experts said. Those people should not have difficulty returning.

The impact from limiting L visas could be wider. They apply to people transferring within companies, often for executive roles or positions that required specialized knowledge, and there were more than 157,000 L visas issued in 2019. But those people by definition aren’t changing companies, and the pandemic may already be limiting the demand for L visas, experts said.

Sophie Alcorn, an immigration lawyer in Mountain View, California, said the scope of the order was “extremely narrow” especially compared to speculation in social media ahead of time about what it might cover. But she said the order would still add to tensions and fear by spreading the impression that the U.S. was closed to immigration.

“The amount of fear-mongering is disproportionate to the scope of the order, but the consistent thing with this administration is sparking fear,” she said.

“Even though most immigrants are not affected by this, I’m afraid the message they’ll get is, ‘Don’t come to the U.S. You’re not welcome,’” she said.