The Seattle area’s technology community got a reprieve Tuesday when the Trump administration stopped short of suspending visa applications for temporary workers after extensive pushback from the business sector.
But those within tech and other industries relying on foreign workers to fill highly skilled positions are worried about what action President Donald Trump may take next after he announced that he was suspending for 60 days all green card applications by families of permanent residents or those applying through their companies.
Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, said the administration had already slowed the legal immigration process during the coronavirus crisis and dismissed as “ludicrous” Trump’s assertion his executive order — which could be extended and expanded — will protect American jobs.
“If you really want to harm the U.S. economy, then shut immigration down,” Schutzler said. “If he wants to restart the economy, it’s not going to be by restricting access to the people that create jobs in the United States.”
Just 4% of Washington’s roughly 400,000 tech workers are in the state on the common H1B temporary work visa, he added.
“It’s a really tiny slice, so it’s not like a lot of jobs have been filled by H1B visas. But those particular jobs are super critical, because … they’re building the software and the applications that are creating massive jobs for Washingtonians.”
Just how far Trump will go in his executive order isn’t clear.
“We still have a lot of questions,” said Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, after Trump’s comments Tuesday at his White House news briefing. “It’s very hard to parse from his statements what the policy is going to be. And clearly they’re still writing it.”
Barón questions how long the 60-day pause in processing applications will really last, noting the travel ban imposed three years ago on foreign nationals of certain countries was supposedly short-term, “but here we are.”
He and other immigration attorneys are also monitoring whether immigrants already inside the country will be affected.
Tahmina Watson, a business immigration lawyer, said the coronavirus has slowed much of the immigration apparatus. Her client from the United Kingdom trying to join his brother in Seattle waited months for a visa application interview that was canceled indefinitely due to the pandemic.
As speculation mounted after Trump’s tweet Monday night announcing his planned executive order, Watson warned clients in a blog post: “If you are inside the US whether on a temporary visa, or green card — DO NOT leave the US.”
Otherwise, she inferred, they might not get back in.
Elected officials blasted Trump’s plans.
“It is absolutely despicable that he would use COVID-19 as an excuse to push his xenophobic agenda,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. “COVID-19 is hurting so many people and exhausting frontline health care workers, many of whom are immigrants themselves. Instead of relying on science and data, his administration defaults to racism and bigotry.”
Gov. Jay Inslee expressed concern about any Trump immigration decree preventing needed workers — including health care professionals — from coming here.
“I just counsel against anyone using COVID-19 for ideological purposes,” Inslee said. “And using this to satisfy, to scratch that itch, if that’s the reason, it would not be wise.”
Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a tweet: “Immigrants are vital to our company & the nation’s economy. Today, they’re helping us respond to COVID-19 in healthcare, research, IT, infrastructure, food supply, & more. As we focus on recovery for all Americans, we must not lose sight of the critical importance of immigrants.”
Elizabeth Scallon, the Seattle-based head of WeWork Labs for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, agreed the country needs immigrants more than ever.
“Our future requires innovation and transformation,” she said. “And having immigrants be part of that story will help us to be a world leader.”
Xiao Wang, founder of Seattle tech startup Boundless Immigration, which helps streamline about 3,000 marriage-based green cards and citizenship applications annually, estimates a third of his clients are tech workers. Further immigration curbs now, he added, risk needlessly stressing workers and their families already navigating a complex system requiring “double the paperwork” since before Trump took office.
“This has been one hurdle built upon another hurdle, built upon another hurdle.”