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Guest opinion: Foreign techies are helping America fight the pandemic. We need more of them

America’s largest tech companies recruit and retain thousands of foreign workers each year. They are leading the fight against the pandemic.

SHARE Guest opinion: Foreign techies are helping America fight the pandemic. We need more of them

In this April 28, 2015, file photo, a man walks past a Microsoft sign set up for the Microsoft BUILD conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco. Microsoft has been one of the tech companies leading the fight against COVID-19, while hiring thousands of foreign workers annually.

Associated Press

The Trump administration recently issued an executive order that could block nearly 360,000 green card applications annually, effectively cutting immigration levels by roughly one-third. Some immigration skeptics, however, claim that the proclamation doesn’t go far enough. Executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies Mark Krikorian, for example, recently called on the president to suspend the H-1B program, a visa used to recruit highly skilled guest workers.

“Failing to pause this program,” he wrote, “would make a mockery of the president’s claim to want to preserve American jobs for American workers.” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson echoed these sentiments, warning viewers that if they lost their jobs, companies can still import cheap IT workers from Asia to replace them. 

America’s largest tech companies utilize the H-1B program to recruit and retain thousands of foreign workers each year. While it’s understandable that some people would want to halt the program in an attempt to shield Americans from foreign competition, such a policy would only stall the nation’s economic recovery and weaken our ability to fight the pandemic. 

Critics of guest-worker programs claim that foreign labor reduces American wages and raises unemployment. Some studies do find that H-1B workers specializing in fields like computer science might decrease wages and employment levels for Americans in those same occupations. But on the whole, H-1B workers significantly boost earnings for most Americans. A 2016 comprehensive literature review on the subject by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that skilled immigrants increase earnings and employment opportunities for both college and noncollege educated Americans alike.

At first, it might seem counterintuitive that importing more labor into the country would actually raise rather than lower wages for American citizens. But it begins to make sense after considering that immigrants are more likely to complement, rather than substitute, the work done by Americans. Highly skilled immigrants in particular spur job growth and firm expansion through their contributions to overall productivity and innovation. In a 2018 working paper, two economists from the University of California San Diego discovered that firms that applied for new H-1B workers created new products and replaced outdated ones at a 17% higher rate than other firms.

These productivity gains aren’t only crucial for economic recovery; they’re also needed in our battle against COVID-19, which is largely being fought by major tech companies. Each year, over 44,000 workers skilled in AI-related fields earn H-1B status, according to estimates from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Microsoft recruited and retained roughly 5,257 H-1B workers last fiscal year, and in March, it helped develop an AI screening tool that differentiates between patients likely to be infected with COVID-19 from those stricken with less threatening ailments.

The company is also using machine learning to develop therapies for the disease. IBM, another top visa petitioner, is partnering with the White House to compile the world’s most powerful supercomputers to accelerate U.S. labs’ ability to find a cure and anticipate how the virus will evolve. Other H-1B-reliant companies, such as Intel, are investing in innovations like widespread adoption of tele-ICUs, which enable health professionals to provide care and monitor patient data from a distance. 

“Immigrants account for about a quarter of US invention and entrepreneurship, despite a policy environment that is not well-suited for these purposes.” -Sari and William Kerr

Contrary to what critics say, H-1B workers are critically important to many of the technological developments needed for us to regain both our economic and public health. Instead of pressuring the president to suspend the program, they should be calling for him to lift the very restrictions he put in place after taking office. Thanks to heightened scrutiny brought on by President Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order of 2017, denials for H-1B extensions skyrocketed from 5% to 12% in just one year. These rejections were overturned by the courts at a similarly high rate, implying that nearly all of them were frivolous. Yet even with this hostile political and regulatory climate, immigrants still find ways to contribute. This state of affairs is best summed up by the observations of economists Sari and Wiliam Kerr: “Immigrants account for about a quarter of US invention and entrepreneurship, despite a policy environment that is not well-suited for these purposes.”

Sam Peak works on immigration policy in Washington, D.C. and is a tech and innovation fellow for Young Voices.