Silicon Valley in jitters - anti-immigration stance could hurt growth

President-elect Donald Trump speaking during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown, on Nov 9, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO • After badgering the government for years to ease limits on skilled foreign tech workers, Silicon Valley now has a bigger fear: Mr Donald Trump's anti-immigration platform that could impair its growth.

Lobbyists and officials from tech giants, such as Google and Apple, are watching for clues to the technology policies of the President- elect, who has said he would ban Muslims from entering the United States and opposed H-1B visas for high-skilled immigrants, though he later flip-flopped on his stance.

"The flag in Silicon Valley is at half mast," Indian-born entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa was quoted as saying by the Financial Times, as the industry is gripped by increasing worry that the billionaire would stall hiring programmes that are dependent on H-1B visas or make it harder to fund foreign start-up founders.

In his immigration proposal released early in his campaign, Mr Trump argued that foreign workers are holding down American salaries and hurting employment rates.

He proposed restricting the H-1B programme, and criticised it for giving away coveted entry-level IT jobs to cheaper workers flown in from overseas.

He also suggested increasing the prevailing wage for H-1B visas to force companies to favour locals. This would help diversity in Silicon Valley, the proposal said.

More than half of US tech start-ups valued at US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) or more have at least one immigrant founder, according to an analysis this year by the National Foundation for American Policy, an immigration research group.

In two Silicon Valley counties, about two-thirds of people working in computing and mathematics fields are foreign-born, according to a study by research firm Joint Venture Silicon Valley, using 2014 US government data.

Tech leaders are warning that a crackdown on foreigners in the industry could push companies to invest more in overseas offices, like manufacturers which had moved abroad, the Financial Times said.

But despite the initial resistance to Mr Trump, who will be sworn in on Jan 20, the Los Angeles Times said tech bosses have written to their employees, promising to work with the new president.

The industry also hopes to bank on PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who is on the presidential transition team, to be their surrogate and advocate on regulatory and policy matters in Washington.

Making a conciliatory call, Mr Garrett Johnson, co-founder of tech advocacy group Lincoln Labs, said people understandably think the worst after "Trump said a lot of nasty, unsavoury things".

"Both sides need to extend olive branches," the LA Times quoted him as saying.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline Silicon Valley in jitters - anti-immigration stance could hurt growth. Subscribe