American technology companies for years have relied on a steady stream of skilled engineers from overseas to help them create their products.
Now many of those companies and their workers are girding for expected changes to immigration policy under President Trump that the companies say could hurt their ability to tap the technical talent they need to stay competitive.
President Trump, who has signed a series of executive orders related to immigration, is expected to take similar action soon on visa programs for foreign workers.
A draft of a proposed executive order on the matter was leaked this week. While it is not clear how the final order will look and the draft contains some changes many in the technology industry support, some language alarmed people in Silicon Valley.
The technology industry relies heavily on the H-1B visa program, through which highly skilled workers – like software engineers – are permitted to work in the United States for companies like Microsoft, Google and Intel.
The draft proposed a regulation to „restore the integrity of employment-based nonimmigrant worker programs“ and to consider options for modifying the H-1B program to „ensure that beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest.“
That language rattled some executives and lawyers representing technology companies because of its implication of sweeping changes.
Some technology companies have started warning their investors of potential threats to their business from the changes. In a filing on January 26th with securities regulators related to its quarterly financial results, Microsoft included new language related to immigration.
„Changes to U.S. immigration policies that restrain the flow of technical and professional talent may inhibit our ability to adequately staff our research and development efforts,“ the company said in the filing.
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said in a statement that the company believes “in a strong and balanced high-skilled immigration system and in broader immigration opportunities for talented and law-abiding young people like the Dreamers,” a reference to young people who entered the country illegally as children but were allowed to remain by President Barack Obama.
Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, waded into the broader immigration debate with a post in which he said he was concerned about Mr. Trump’s actions. Mr. Zuckerberg said his great-grandparents came from Germany, Austria and Poland, while his wife’s arrived from China and Vietnam.
„We are a nation of immigrants, and we all benefit when the best and brightest from around the world can live, work and contribute here,“ Mr. Zuckerberg wrote. „I hope we find the courage and compassion to bring people together and make this world a better place for everyone.“
The technology industry is open to changes that have been proposed by members of Congress to better enforce the skilled worker program and adjust limits on the number of visas. But the companies see skilled worker visas as a signature policy issue that they have fought to protect and expand.
They fear Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, and others in the administration will take a more severe approach to immigration and sweep up H-1B visas into prohibitions on refugees and stronger border protection.
„The effect would end up being exactly the opposite of what Trump wants. Companies would go offshore like Microsoft did with Vancouver, Canada“ to seek talent, said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a research group sponsored by several tech firms.
Mr. Zuckerberg has been an outspoken proponent of immigration issues and how they may affect those inside and outside of Silicon Valley. In 2013, with other tech leaders, Mr. Zuckerberg backed Fwd.us, a nonprofit group dedicated to comprehensive immigration change.
But Mr. Trump has made it increasingly clear that immigration policy may change drastically.
Any changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, initiated under the Obama administration, could have significant effects on current tech employees who fear for their status.
On January 27th, President Trump has signed a separate executive order that imposes a temporary ban on visas to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.