Trump’s crackdown on H-1B visas could prevent the next US unicorn born of Indian immigrants

Dog days.
Dog days.
Image: Reuters/Mark Makela
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H-1B work visas, which allow foreigners to work in the United States for up to six years, are under attack—and it’s sending Indian tech firms into a tailspin.

A US bill first introduced in 2007, which would more than double the minimum wage for H-1B visa positions (to $130,000 from $60,000) has been reintroduced in Congress, and a leaked draft of an executive order suggested the possibility of overhauling all American work-visa programs. While that type of revamp would have a broad global impact, it strikes a particular chord in India: North America is the biggest export market for the country’s $150-billion IT industry. Immigration reforms like those being outlined or alluded to by the Donald Trump administration will not only curb that dynamic but could ultimately stifle future billion-dollar ideas.

As of this month, at least nine of the unicorns—private startups with valuations of $1 billion or higher—listed by the Wall Street Journal have a founder of Indian origin, Quartz found.

Stumping innovation

In March 2016, a study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that over half of the 87 unicorns listed in the Journal’s Billion Dollar Startup Club were founded by immigrants. “With 14 entrepreneurs on the list, India was the leading country of origin for the immigrant founders of billion-dollar companies,” the report noted.

One such company was AppDynamics, founded in 2008 by Jyoti Bansal. After graduating from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, Bansal came to the US on an H-1B visa, cutting his teeth at a variety of American startups. He waited nearly eight years before receiving his green card.

“I wanted to come to Silicon Valley,” Bansal told Forbes last year. “I was fascinated with the concept of startups and creation…America has everything we need to create great companies here. We have great openness. We have a good legal structure and access to capital. But in technology, it’s all about talent. We need an immigration system that allows people to keep coming here.”

Earlier this month, Cisco acquired AppDynamics for $3.7 billion.

Trump’s scrutiny of visa programs has to do with the notion of foreign workers displacing American ones. But if past is prologue, immigrants often create jobs—sometimes lots of them. One poster-boy of this counterpoint is Apple, the largest tech company in the country, which was founded by the child of Syrian immigrants.

According to the Journal, four of the top 10 billion-dollar companies founded by immigrants were created by entrepreneurs of Indian lineage. (Remember too: These are just the unicorns. Indians also hold the top spots at companies that include Google and Microsoft.)

“Some of the greatest innovations in data science, cloud applications, machine learning, and online retail are being led or co-created by Indian engineers,” says Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. “If Indians are ousted by the US, we would concede a substantial portion of tech-industry job growth and product innovation to Canada, Germany, France, and of course India. Rejecting Indian engineering talent would be the height of stupidity.”

Ripple effect

While bills seeking visa constraints have floated around Congress for years, the new administration has been unusually combative on this front: A Jan. 27 executive order indefinitely banned Syrian refugees and immigrants, and temporarily banned immigrants from six other Muslim-majority nations—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Tech leaders from Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and other companies have raised their objections. They also have the resources to put up a fight.

“As an immigrant who grew up in one of the countries that was banned, I’m sad and angry with what is happening,” Instacart founder Apoorva Mehta tweeted last week. Mehta, who lived in Libya until the age of 14, said Instacart will donate $100,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union to contest the ban. The company is also offering to fund immigration counsel to employees and their families.