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Uncertainty over Trump’s immigration policy leads foreign engineers to ditch startups

27 Dec

by Sara Ashley O’Brien

While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump made it clear that he wanted to deport illegal immigrants.

His stance on high-skilled immigration, on the other hand, was more opaque.

The H-1B visa is the most common pathway for high-skilled foreigners to work in the U.S. Trump called it “very, very bad for workers” on the campaign trail and, after being elected, pledged to investigate visa programs that were abused. However, he also admitted that he’s hired H-1B workers for his own businesses.

Uncertainty over what will happen under Trump has some foreign engineers thinking twice about working for a startup.

That’s according to Harj Taggar, CEO of TripleByte, a technical recruiting site for full-time programmers.

“The thought process is … If something does happen [with visa reform], I want an army of lawyers on my side,” said Taggar, who’s seen anecdotal evidence on TripleByte to support that. The firm gives an online programming test and technical interview to assess the skills of candidates and connect them with jobs at companies like Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB, Tech30), Uber, Airbnb, as well as smaller startups.

TripleByte applicants are required to already have a U.S. work visa. Taggar, a former partner at Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, said TripleByte receives roughly 2,000 applications every month. About 10% are on the H-1B or TN visa (for Canadian and Mexican citizens).

“We’ve seen engineers who are on H-1Bs tell us that they’re specifically looking to move to a new company that’s larger and has more resources than the company they’re currently at,” Taggar told CNNMoney. “Earlier startups can’t offer [legal resources] in the way that a Facebook or Google can.”

There is a potential bright spot for startups looking for technical talent, though. Cracking down on those who abuse the system could create more room for smaller firms.

H-1B visas are doled out by a lottery system — with an annual cap of just 85,000 per year. Startups often refrain from submitting for H-1B visas due to a swelling number of applicants. In 2016, 236,000 foreigners applied for the H-1B; in 2014, there were 172,500 applications. It’s an expensive process and is futile if their employees aren’t chosen in the lottery.

When Trump met with top tech execs last week, immigration was one of three main issues discussed, according to a source briefed on the meeting. Recode’s Kara Swisher reported that Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30)CEO Satya Nadella brought up the H-1B program and that Trump seemed responsive to his concerns about tech’s need to retain and bring foreign talent to the U.S.

Tech workers and immigration experts are very much taking a “wait and see” approach.

“We don’t have a good sense of what is to come,” said Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian.

Ohanian has advocated for visa reform for years. He’s warned that antiquated visa policies could be the downfall of the U.S. tech boom as talented engineers are forced to return to their home countries instead of helping build companies in the U.S.

“The macro trend that’s really important is that we, as a country, acknowledge how much value is created by so many immigrants.”