The Trump administration’s aggressive effort to cripple China’s emerging tech industries is running headlong into the Trump administration’s aggressive effort to halt the flow of foreign workers into the United States.
Tech industry representatives and experts say Monday’s White House proclamation, which bans the arrival of high-skilled workers under the H1-B visa program until January 2021 at the earliest, is an unmitigated boon for Beijing’s effort to attract and retain tech talent—particularly in the ultra-competitive fields of artificial intelligence, advanced computer chips, and quantum technologies.
“This is a gigantic unforced error in terms of our great-power competition with China over emerging technologies,” said Doug Rand, director of the technology and innovation initiative at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s absolutely disastrous, and is completely at odds with the administration’s desire to lead the world in emerging technologies, including AI.”
Rand, a former official in President Obama’s Office of Science of Technology Policy and a cofounder of Boundless Immigration, a tech company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship, said President Trump’s new order also undermines America’s attractiveness to immigrants, a key advantage in the international tug-of-war for tech talent.
“To take this incredible gift, this superpower we have that’s been developed over centuries, and to just throw it out the window—Beijing must be laughing all the way to the bank,” Rand said.
The H1-B visa program allows companies—many of them from the tech industry—to sponsor talented foreigners to come work for them in the United States. Though ostensibly a guest-worker program capped at 85,000 people a year, in practice the H1-B visa acts a crucial stepping-stone for foreign researchers and programmers to earn permanent-resident status and, eventually, citizenship.
In a call with reporters on Monday, administration officials claimed the restrictions, along with a host of others aimed at separate visa programs, will free up 525,000 jobs for Americans over the next six months.
The officials said the Labor Department would also end the H1-B lottery system in favor of those applicants offered the highest wages, and would reform other parts of the program to increase the salaries at which companies are allowed to offer H1-B visas.
“This will drive both the wage level and the skill level for H1-B applicants up,” one official said. “It will reduce competition with Americans at the entry level.”
But experts say there isn’t much competition with American citizens to begin with—particularly in high-tech fields like machine learning, where the fight between U.S. and Chinese firms is accelerating.
“The vast majority of people who are coming to our universities to gather these skill sets are international students,” said Caleb Watney, head of emerging technology research at R Street, a center-right think tank. “We just don’t have the domestic supply.”
Even if there were enough Americans to fill high-skilled tech jobs, Watney said it’s wrong to look at emerging technology jobs as a “fixed pie.”
“We want the tech industry to be dynamic so we can have many new start-ups, many more companies, many more job openings,” he said.
The industry is already warning the White House about the impact the H1-B ban will have on America’s international competitiveness, particularly in emerging industries where Washington and Beijing are jockeying for supremacy.
Last year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy led the implementation of the National Quantum Initiative Act, which funnels $1.275 billion into the same quantum technologies being pursued by China. But Michael Biercuk, a quantum physicist and CEO of Q-CTRL, a quantum-technology start-up with offices in the U.S. and Australia, said H1-B visas “have been essential in building up U.S. technical leadership in quantum technology.”
“Refusing entry to the very people who will build this industry isn’t favoring ‘local talent,’” Biercuk said in a statement. “It’s sending our greatest technical asset away to build the industry in other locations.”
The administration has acted even more aggressively to cut China off from access to the tools and equipment it needs to boost production of high-end computer chips, also known as semiconductors. Those steps include a dramatic expansion of export controls targeting Chinese semiconductor firms and foreign firms that deal with Chinese companies. Both Congress and the Export-Import Bank are also pursuing, with the tacit backing of the White House, billions in subsidies designed to boost America’s capacity to manufacture semiconductors.
But Intel, one of the leading U.S. manufacturers of semiconductors, says the loss of H1-B visas will now make it tougher for America to compete.
“To continue its leadership in the fiercely competitive global semiconductor industry, the U.S. must be able to attract and retain highly trained and specialized engineers and scientists from all over the world,” the company said in a statement. “There is a shortage of such talent in the U.S., and foreign national graduates of U.S. advanced degree programs are essential to closing this skills gap.”
Remco Zwetsloot, a researcher in global AI talent flows at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said Beijing has long sought to entice Chinese researchers who study in the U.S. back home to work in China. As it stands, more than 90 percent of Chinese AI students who earn PhDs in the U.S. choose to work in America upon completing their studies. But as the White House’s proclamation sparks further chaos in the U.S. visa system, Zwetsloot said that’s likely to change.
“Creating that uncertainty—that is going to play into China’s hand,” he said. “They do a lot of domestic messaging about chaos in the U.S. system and the U.S. being a bad place to live and work. And I think this is probably going to be used in the same way.”
All this is happening, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic, when many high-skilled foreign workers are already hunkered down for the foreseeable future. If the ban on H1-B visas lasts only for the six months stipulated in the White House proclamation, Zwetsloot and others suggested its long-term negative impact may be lessened.
But one line in the proclamation says the restrictions on visas “may be continued as necessary.” And given the Trump administration’s long-standing efforts to limit immigration, several experts suggested the future of the H1-B program likely hinges on the outcome of this year’s presidential race.
“It would be incredibly naïve to believe that at any point they’re going to come to the self-imposed deadline and say, ‘You know what? We’re good. Let’s terminate the ban,’” Rand said. “This is never going to end as long as Trump is in office.”