I had expected — or feared — that President Barack Obama would once again let Silicon Valley down with his executive order on immigration. But he hasn’t. The president has done practically everything in his power to address the needs of the technology community. The larger problem is that this is only a Band-Aid. What is worse is that this will likely be the only immigration reform we see in the near future. It will take many years for the wounds to heal from the battles that will now start.
There are more than one million immigrant doctors, scientists, engineers and teachers who entered the country legally and are stuck in limbo while they wait for permanent resident visas, which are in short supply. It can take decades for people of some nationalities to get a green card, and once the application process has started, they cannot change jobs without getting to the back of the queue. Employers know that these workers won’t be leaving them, so they often take advantage of the situation by offering lower salary increases and lesser roles. The president’s executive order provides “portable work authorization,” which means that they will be able to change jobs. This is a big deal because it will fix one of the issues that opponents of skilled immigration have complained the most about: The salary differential between people on H-1B visas and American workers. No longer can skilled immigrants be considered “cheap labor.”
As well, this fixes another major problem: the purgatory that spouses of H-1B workers have been placed in. Highly skilled professionals — mostly women — have seen their careers stagnate and been confined to their homes because they were not allowed to work. The administrative order authorizes work visas for the spouses of immigrants who have filed for permanent resident visas. This is a huge step forward.
The president also announced administrative changes to improve the processing of visas, expanded immigration options for foreign entrepreneurs and extensions to training visas for foreign students. These are all good, but the devil is in the details. It really depends on how the immigration bureaucracy interprets these orders and what additional hurdles are placed in the way of skilled immigrants.
What the president didn’t announce was an increase in the numbers of temporary and permanent resident visas and a proper Startup Visa. This is a big concern — because these are the core needs of Silicon Valley. It needs more highly skilled workers and tens of thousands of new startups.
The extreme wing of the Republican Party is likely to go on the warpath because the president used his executive privileges and cut them out of the decision process. They will likely spread more misinformation about immigration and poison the waters even more. They will accuse Obama of providing amnesty to the undocumented, say that foreigners are taking American jobs away and spread false rumors. The truth will be a casualty of these battles and large segments of the American population will rally against all immigration. So this executive order may be the last progress we see on immigration for many years — until the anger has subdued.
The tragedy is that millions of undocumented workers were left out of the executive order and hundreds of thousands of skilled immigrants will still remain in limbo. The tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who would have come to the United States to start their companies will not be able to do so and the brain drain will continue. The only hope is that sanity does prevail — and that level-headed Republicans work with the Democrats to craft legislation to do what is right for America.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of Research at Duke University, and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities.