Trump's Immigration Restrictions Raise Concerns for Austin's Tech Leaders

Feb 8, 2017

President Donald Trump is butting heads with the tech industry over his recent actions on immigration. Nearly 100 tech CEOs, including some of the biggest players in Silicon Valley, signed an open letter saying the president’s policies threaten their ability to recruit, hire and retain some of the world’s best employees. How could the president’s policies affect Austin’s tech industry?

Bjorn Billhardt, a German immigrant, is the founder and owner of two Austin-based tech companies.

“I first came to Austin as an exchange student in high school in 1990, and I fell in love with this place,” he said. “I decided to stay and make a living here.”

Billhardt started his first business in Austin. To stay in the country, he applied for an H-1B visa, which allowed him to stay for six years and eventually apply for citizenship. The path he took, however, has become an increasingly rare one.

When he came to the U.S., he said, the H-1B program had a reasonable cap. “If you had a case that merited you coming here because you were skilled in a certain area, you had a good chance."

Today, the program is capped at 85,000 visas a year. Three times as many people usually apply. The Trump administration says it wants to give out H-1B visas to the companies paying the highest salaries. Currently, the visas, which have a minimum salary requirement of $60,000, are awarded through a random lottery. Critics say the system is being used by Indian IT companies to bring foreign workers to the U.S. to do jobs for which they would have to pay Americans more.

A leaked draft of a potential executive order suggests reforms to the program that would award visas only to “the best and the brightest.” Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has made comments that suggest this will be accomplished through raising the minimum salary requirements for those on the H-1B visa, according to Reuters. Members of the tech industry say that would hurt startups, which tend to pay less while they’re trying to grow.

“For me the logic is really simple,” said Kevin Koym, founder of startup accelerator Tech Ranch. “In Silicon Valley, 51 percent of the startups were started by immigrants, and I’m sure the Austin numbers are similar. And the technology jobs that are getting created are the jobs of the future.”

Tech leaders like Fred Schmidt had hoped to see more visa help in 2017. He and his colleagues at Capital Factory have lobbied for the past year and a half for the creation of a “startup visa” that would lower the requirements necessary for foreign entrepreneurs to come to the U.S. to start tech ventures.

The Obama administration was in the process of creating and implementing the International Entrepreneurship rule when he left office. It looked very promising, Schmidt said. “Obama was trying to get that done before he exited his term.”

But then President Trump put the program on hold.

“There’s just so much confusion,” Schmidt said. “Does this exist or doesn’t it exist? Is it just a theory, a plan, a rumor?”

So far, the president’s actions on immigration have left the Austin tech industry with more questions than answers.