By Anshu Siripurapu
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Silicon Valley badly needs high-skilled tech workers and plenty live in other countries — and America’s tech titans are concerned the Trump administration doesn’t understand their needs.
Peter Leroe-Munoz, vice president of technology and innovation policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy trade association, said tech officials have long wanted an increase in H-1B visas.
But when asked Monday if President Donald Trump was open to an expansion of the H-1B program, White House press secretary Sean Spicer would only say, “We’ve talked a lot about visa reform in the past, and I think the president wants to make sure that he listens to the various people who have interest in this subject.”
Leaders of some of the biggest tech companies including Amazon, Apple and Microsoft convened in Washington Monday primarily to discuss how to bring Silicon Valley innovation to the federal government. Participants also included college presidents and top administration officials.
They held working sessions on a host of issues, including citizen services, cloud computing, analytics, cybersecurity, purchasing and contract reform, talent recruitment and retraining and government and private sector partnerships.
The H-1B program, created by the Immigration Act of 1990, was intended to allow American companies to hire foreign workers with specialized skills that firms could not find in the United States. It put protections were put in place to ensure that companies did not use the law to replace American workers with cheaper labor.
Still, there was controversy. A loophole in the law allowed companies such as Disney, Southern California Edison and the University of California to lay off IT workers and replace some of them with H-1B visa holders, causing an uproar.
In April, Trump, who ran on a slogan of “Make American Great Again,” announced his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which called for a review of the H-1B visa program.
“Right now, H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery — and that’s wrong. Instead, they should be given to the most-skilled and highest-paid applicants, and they should never, ever be used to replace Americans,” Trump said at a speech in Kenosha, Wis., announcing the order.
Leroe-Munoz indicated Americans aren’t being replaced — there just aren’t enough Americans to meet the demands of the tech industry. He said there is a need for 125,000 computer science students every year, but the U.S. graduates only 50,000, half of whom are foreign born.
H-1B workers are also highly paid. According to 2015 data compiled by the San Francisco Chronicle, Google paid its H-1B workers an average salary of about $130,000, Apple between $123,600 and $154,200 and Facebook $141,000. Other companies, though, pay less.
Congressman Ro Khanna, D-Calif., one of Silicon Valley’s representatives in Congress, said Trump’s statements suggested a “sledgehammer approach” to immigration reform and that tech leaders are eager to set the record straight.
“They want to make sure the facts get out,” Khanna said.
Khanna acknowledged that there was some abuse in the system, but noted that the H-1B visa program was also responsible for executives such as Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
He said tech leaders should impress upon Trump the importance of immigration to his plans for economic growth. Trump’s budget assumes the economy will grow by 3 percent.
“There’s no way we can have 3 percent (economic) growth without immigration, it’s just impossible,” Khanna said.
Both Democrats and Republicans are now trying to address the issue legislatively. In the House, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. has introduced a bill to reform the H-1B system, giving priority to companies willing to pay foreign employees higher wages.
In the Senate, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is planning to reintroduce his Immigration Innovation Act to address H-1B visas. Hatch proposed capping the number of H-1Bs a single employer can seek and requiring additional proof that employers tried to hire an American first.
“Unfortunately, a handful of bad actors has created a great deal of unease about H-1B visas by misusing the system to offshore jobs to foreign workers,” Hatch said during a Senate speech in February.