Austin tech community fears changes coming to work visas

Austin tech workers (KXAN Photo)
Austin tech workers (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — President Trump is looking to make changes to the popular work visa H1B that make it possible for foreign nationals with a bachelor’s degree or higher to work in the U.S. In Austin, there’s a buzz among the tech community who say this could hurt our local economy.

Austin is one of the top tech cities in the country, and nearly 25 percent of tech entrepreneurs are from overseas, according to immigration attorney Jason Finkelman.

“There is legislation proposed to put some very severe restrictions on the H1B program as it exists today,” Finkelman said.

According to a report by CNN, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump will continue to talk about reforming the H-1B visa program, among others, as part of a larger push for immigration reform. There are no specifics on what the changes will be, but Finkelman says he’s starting to hear about possible changes.

“[I’ve been hearing] limiting the H1B visa is for for nationals that have advanced degrees and raising the minimum prevailing wage for national must be paid to do the position to around about $100,000,” Finkelman says. He’s already fielding calls from many students set to graduate in the coming months. He says students are the highest population that secures H1B visas because they have the opportunity to intern with a company and then get hired after graduation.

“In Austin… if they’re forced to pay significantly higher wages, are forced to go through stricter requirements, it’s going to be harder for small or medium sized employers to get the talent they need,” Finkelman says.

Tech company owners, like Kevin Koym, founder and CEO of Tech Ranch, say the whole idea of tightening immigration laws are hurting their business.

“We’ve worked with entrepreneurs from 38 different countries and around 6,000 entrepreneurs and total over the last few years,” Koym says. “The message that we’re sending as the United States to the rest of the world is that we’re not open for global business and I think that’s a mistake.”

Koym says he’s already heard of foreign business colleagues who have been stopped at airports, for not being U.S. citizens. He says it only sends a message that the U.S. doesn’t like other countries.

“Even if you’re not from one of the countries that’s been called out, there’s a wall — a perception about hey, maybe it doesn’t make sense to go to the states anymore,” Koym said.

Ultimately, Koym says economy will hurt the country, but more specifically Austin, one of the top global tech cities in the world.

“Long-term economic success of any country, of any city in the world, it’s always been about start of entrepreneurs,” Koym said. “The predominance of who is starting them in the United States right now are immigrants. We should pay attention to that.”

President Trump is not the only one looking to reform the H1B Visa program.

Three separate bills have been introduced in Congress this month that would change it including a Democratic lawmaker from the Silicon Valley who wants to remove the lottery system and replace it with a preference for companies that can pay the highest salaries.

The U.S. is expected to issue 85,000 H1B visas this year, like every year, but demand for them in 2016 was three times more than the number available.

We spoke with another tech entrepreneur off camera who told us, he thought the changes would be good. He teaches coding in Austin and says he’s certain he’s been passed up many times for jobs because hiring a foreign worker was cheaper labor.

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