As 2017 draws nearer, the tech industry’s eyes are on President-elect Trump, and how his administration may enact previously suggested policies that seem certain to clash with Silicon Valley’s ideals.
Trump’s hardline conservative stance on immigration and foreign labour could result in a major conflict, for one — particularly when it comes to the H-1B visa program, which admits 65,000 workers and 20,000 graduate students from outside the US to work for American companies each year. As this chart from Statista shows, the tech world is by far the biggest beneficiary of the program, taking more than 64% of the 315,000+ H-1B petitions in 2014.
Trump himself has flip-flopped on his view of the program — and was reportedly open to listening to tech industry concerns recently — but his recently appointed attorney general, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, has been a vocal critic for years. Meanwhile, tech luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have spent the last few years lobbying the government to expand the program’s reach, and make it easier for those foreign workers to become citizens. (The visa lasts three years, with a three-year extension allowed after that.)
This is an emotional debate. Proponents say the program allows US tech companies to employ highly-skilled engineers and coders that are simply not available within the country’s borders, which is what the visa was created to enact. Opponents argue that the system is abused to hire cheaper labour at the expense of existing American citizens.
The reality isn’t so black and white, but Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and Sessions’ influence will likely result in some adjustment of the program. How far that will go, or how effective it will be, is up in the air. In any case, both sides may be missing the more existential threat to American labour: automation.