TECH POLITICS

Trump travel and visa policies prompt concern, reassuring memos from Austin tech executives

Austin tech leaders have spent the week consoling affected employees, emphasizing their commitment to diversity, and in some cases, speaking out against the ban.

Posted February 3rd, 2017

On the heels of President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban issued last week, thousands of employees at Austin-based National Instruments received an internal memo Monday afternoon.

It said the company was working with employees impacted by the executive order, and was adjusting their work responsibilities so they wouldn’t be traveling outside the United States.

The company’s CEO, Alex Davern, touted the appreciation for diversity at National Instruments, the “great respect that all NI employees show for one another,” and noted that he is an immigrant from Ireland.

While not as high-profile or forceful in their opposition as Silicon Valley-based tech companies such as Google or Apple, Austin tech leaders have spent the week reassuring affected employees, emphasizing their commitment to diversity, and in some cases, speaking out against the ban.

Silicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle said the chipmaker has employees potentially impacted by the ban and is advising them to stay in the United States.

“It has created a lot of uncertainty, speculation, and concern among these employees,” Tuttle said.

Silicon LabsSilicon Labs CEO Tyson Tuttle

He and other Austin tech executives said they are particularly worried that Trump’s next immigration move could be to curtail the number of international workers who obtain visas to work in the United States, particularly through the popular H-1B visa program. H-1B visas allow U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in certain high-demand jobs. H-1B visas are valid for up to three years.

“We’ve got concerns about the ability to compete globally for the best talent,” Tuttle said. “And for our employees to conduct business globally.”


READ HOW AUSTIN TECH COMPANIES ARE RESPONDING TO THE TRAVEL BAN


The temporary travel ban, which limits the ability for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries to travel to the U.S. for 90 days, meant 100,000 visas were revoked, a Justice Department lawyer said in a court hearing on Friday. However, the State Department disputed this, saying the number was about 60,000, according to the Washington Post.

The ban prohibits citizens of those countries from entering the U.S., although green card holders and dual citizens (so long as the other country is not part of the ban) will be allowed in.

On Friday night, a federal judge blocked the travel ban, and U.S. immigration processes continued as they did before Trump issued his executive order. The Trump Administration is appealing the decision.

The White House has said the ban is necessary until more rigorous vetting procedures are put in place to prevent potential terrorists gaining entry to the United States. 

But critics say it’s overly broad and isn’t likely to impact terrorism.

Although this order impacts every industry, tech companies have been particularly vocal in criticizing it.

That’s because tech companies tend to recruit talent from all over the world. They fear by limiting their ability to hire internationally, it will put American companies at an disadvantage in the intellectual arms race.

‘They are terrified’

Immigration attorneys say they have been inundated this week with questions from tech executives. “I’ve done a lot of town hall-type meetings this week with clients,” said Austin immigration attorney Maggie Murphy.

Murphy said tech companies are concerned about what to tell employees from those seven affected countries. And she said the travel ban has sparked concern among workers from other countries who are here on a valid visa or have green card status.

“They are terrified about what has happened,” said Murphy, who works for the Jackson Lewis law firm. She and other immigration attorneys are urging anyone that is a citizen of one of the seven affected countries to stay put in the United States.

Jason Finkelman, an immigration lawyer based in Austin, said Trump’s immigration order could potentially have a big impact on the Austin tech sector.

Stephen Spillman/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANProtesters object to President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban at the Austin Bergstrom International Airport, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017.

Over the past week, he said he’s received calls from dozens of clients worried about their foreign-born workers. “They are saying either ‘I have a current employee from one of those countries that is outside of the U.S.’ … (or) they’re saying ‘I need my current employee who is from one of those countries and they need to travel internationally,’” he said. “It’s impacting them dramatically.”

Attorneys said they are advising clients to lobby against the ban and other potential travel restrictions.

“Use your lobbying leverage as much as you can,” said Denver-based immigration attorney Daniel Kowalski with the Allott Law Firm.

Speaking out

Some Austin-area tech companies are doing just that by publicly expressing their opposition to the travel ban. Advanced Micro Devices spokesman Drew Prairie said in a written statement that “AMD’s core beliefs around inclusion and diversity fundamentally differ from the views demonstrated in the recent executive order banning travelers from certain countries.”

AMD is headquartered in California but most of its senior executives live and work in Austin. 

Prairie said the chipmaker employs two people potentially impacted by the ban out of an Austin workforce of 1,500. They have been advised not to travel internationally.

Some tech companies with an Austin presence have gone beyond public criticism and have joined lawsuits against the order.

Mark Matson/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANAMD's Austin campus is off Southwest Parkway.

Travel giant Expedia, which is the parent company of Austin-based HomeAway, sent a message to employees on Sunday from CEO Dara Khosrowshahi that criticized Trump’s executive order.

“Ours is a nation of immigrants. They are at our roots; they are our soul. The President jeopardized that with the stroke of a pen,” said Khosrowshahi, who is an Iranian immigrant.

On Monday, the company, which is based in Bellevue, Wash., and is the world’s largest online travel firm, filed a declaration as part of a lawsuit by Washington State against the president. (Amazon did as well.)

HomeAway, an online listing service for homeowners who want to rent their homes to travelers, has about 1,900 employees, including about 1,100 in Austin. A spokesman said they haven’t identified any Austin employees who are impacted.

Other Central Texas tech companies are taking a different strategy. 


HOW DELL’S RESPONSE TO TRAVEL BAN DIFFERS FROM OTHER TECH COMPANIES


Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell sent a memo to employees on Monday that explained he recently had the opportunity to attend a meeting with Trump at the White House. “As a global company, it is imperative to us, our customers and partners that we have a seat at the policy table,” Dell wrote in the memo. Dell is a member of a Trump’s manufacturing advisory council.

While not directly criticizing the temporary travel ban, the memo said that Trump’s executive order “is a pressing example of why (access) is so important.” Dell promised to advocate for immigration reform that “supports” businesses, customers, employees and their families.”

H-1B concerns

Many tech companies are even more concerned about the potential impact of any changes the administration could make to the H-1B visa program, Finkelman said.

“I’m already getting calls (over) the past 24 hours,” Finkelman said. “It’s only speculation but people see the writing on the wall. (Trump) has said as a campaign promise that he wants to rein in H-1B visas.”

Last week, the online news publication Vox published several documents it said were drafts of possible executive orders. One of the documents Vox published included provisions for altering the way H-1B visas are awarded and shifting more attention to employment programs for “non-immigrant workers.” It also proposed changes to other visa programs.

Kathy Willens/ASSOCIATED PRESSMuslims and Yemenis gather with their supporters on the steps of Brooklyn's Borough Hall, during a protest against President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017.

Kowalski, the immigration attorney, noted that only Congress has the power to make substantial policy changes to programs like the H-1B.

Trump had criticized skilled-worker visa programs on the campaign trail as taking high-paying jobs away from American, instead hiring foreign workers to do the work on a lower salary.

In Texas, there are 43,340 people here on H-1B visas, according to Department of Homeland Security data from 2015, which is about half the number of H-1B visa workers California has. 

This popular program allows U.S. employers to bring 65,000 high-skilled workers each fiscal year, with another 20,000 visas available for advanced-degree students.

Tech companies in Austin employ hundreds of H-1B visa workers. Federal data on the total number of Austin workers here on a visa wasn’t immediately available on Friday, but a Brookings Institution study from 2012 indicated that Austin isn’t one of the top cities for hiring H-1B visa workers, with just over 3,000 requests for H-1B visas. Dallas and Houston had triple the number of H-1B visa requests, though Austin ranked 12th when tracking number of H-1B visa requests per capita.

AMD says it has fewer than 100 workers in Austin on on an H-1B visa. Silicon Labs said it has roughly 75 employees with that type of visa. National Instruments declined to reveal specific numbers of foreign-born workers.

Mark Matson/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMANThe Silicon Labs building in downtown Austin

Several tech executives said they feared an effort to limit foreign-born tech workers would limit their ability to recruit top tech talent.

“More long-term, we’ve got concerns about the ability to compete globally for the best talent. And for our employees to conduct business globally,” Tuttle said.

Tuttle said he’s already seeing the travel ban impact workers who aren’t even from the seven listed countries.

At Silicon Labs, Tuttle said their H-1B workers “now face some uncertainty and a more lengthy path to the renewal for their visas.” He said that these employees are not in the United States and are trying to get a visa renewal processed but are facing unusual delays.

Several immigration attorneys said they have heard anecdotal reports of a slowdown in processing visa renewals this week, regardless of which country the non-U.S. citizen is from.

“The US-CIS officers, and to some extent, State Department officers, are just taking a very cautious approach because things are so chaotic right now,” Kowalski said.

ContributedBrett Hurt, co-founder and CEO of data.world.

Brett Hurt, co-founder of Austin data analytics startup data.world, said that while the company doesn’t have any H-1B visa workers, it does have employees who initially arrived in Austin through the visa program to work for larger companies.

“A lot of people that work at data.world and Bazaarvoice came to Austin through an H-1B to get their start at a bigger company. Then they left that company to join a smaller company like data.world,” said Hurt, who is also founder of Austin software maker Bazaarvoice. “We will lose out if we shut down our borders to the best and brightest.”

‘An emotional reaction’

At Austin technology accelerator Capital Factory, which has built relationships with entrepeneurs and tech incubators around the world, leaders are closely watching the travel ban and potential H-1B changes.

“When we cannot bring promising entrepreneurs to this country to help them expand their businesses here and create jobs for Americans, or educate brilliant foreign minds to look at our country and problems from fresh perspectives and launch new businesses to, again, create new jobs for our citizens — that’s when we shoot ourselves in the foot,” said Fred Schmidt, Capital Factory’s director of international affairs.

Hurt, meanwhile, said he sees the travel ban as policymaking based on fear rather than reason.

“You need to have intelligent immigration policies and not something like we saw last weekend,” Hurt said. “It’s an emotional reaction to a fear over terrorism — which I understand that fear — versus a logical plan. We need logic.”

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