Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General will likely have a bone to pick with Silicon Valley. Politico reports:
Sessions has also been critical of tech giants in the realm of high-skilled immigration. While tech companies have said they face a shortage of workers in science, tech, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, Sessions has described efforts to boost the number of H-1B visas as a “tremendous threat” to Americans.
“It represents the obliviousness of Congress and some of these economic forces to the reality of what’s happening: Half of STEM graduates are not finding jobs in STEM fields,” he said in a November 2015 interview with Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News who will be serving as Trump’s chief strategist in the White House.
Sessions hasn’t been shy about confronting the titans of the tech industry on the issue. In 2014 he challenged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a major proponent of immigration reform. After slamming his lobbying effort, FWD.us, the senator charged: “So I would pose a question to Mr. Zuckerberg. I read in the news that Facebook is now worth more than $200 billion. Is that not enough money to hire American workers for a change?”
It would make a lot of political sense if the new Administration were to pick a fight with Silicon Valley over H-1B visa abuse. The Valley’s most outspoken immigration proponents have made two big tactical errors lately. One, they have increasingly embraced a partisan, Democratic agenda (and were not afraid in this election to go all-in on opposition to Trump.) It is the way of politics that that will now come back to bite them. Secondly, and much more grievously, they’ve chosen to fight on the most self-serving, least defensible possible ground: H-1B visas.
H1-B visa holders carry greater costs and fewer benefits than most other types of immigration—except to their employer. Normally, American workers suffer marginal competition on wages and jobs from immigrants, but gain through the new immigrant’s contributions to the national economy. This especially applies if the immigrant is an entrepreneur. But H-1B visa holders cannot leave their jobs without losing their legal status and so having to leave the country. This makes them cheaper and more pliable employees than their American counterparts. It’s not surprising, then, that H-1Bs have been tied to layoffs. They’ve also been named as a source of job loss to outsourcing; India views this sort of immigration as preparation for outsourcing as a form of industrial policy.
Going after Silicon Valley and its H1-B abusers will work for the Trump coalition in ways that go beyond pleasing the immigrant hawks. When President-Elect Trump named Stephen Bannon his Senior Advisor, the media resurrected comments he made about how many CEOs in Silicon Valley are from Asia. Most of the media coverage of these remarks has focused on their racial content; often lost is that at another level, this is a complaint from Middle America about being left out of the new gold rush. Many Americans, of all races, will respond to the idea that if Silicon Valley is the source of the jobs of the future, Americans ought to have the first crack at those jobs.
For other, non-Bannonite Republicans, this will be a way to be tough on immigration while not being tough on immigrants: the optics of grilling billionaires, either through Justice Department investigations or Congressional hearings, about their hiring processes work much better than the optics of cracking down on immigrant day laborers just trying to make a living.
And there will be others who think that Silicon Valley has been able to count too easily for too long, on the GOP’s pro-business bonafides, while bankrolling the party’s political and cultural opponents. Herodotus tells a story about a pirate king who would raid the ships of his friends as well as his enemies, because, he said, “he would get more thanks if he gave a friend back what he had taken than if he never took it at all.” Doubtless some GOP strategists will advise their bosses the same way: the Valley might appreciate us more if they feared us a bit more. Or at least took us less for granted.
Tech leaders are right on some key, broader immigration issues. An outsized number of start-up founders are immigrants, for instance, and tech immigration will be crucial in the 21st century. (It is immensely important that, in an age when a few bright minds is all it takes to form a multi-billion-dollar company, all the world’s talented tech people would love to come to the U.S.) But self-interest and self-righteousness are an ugly combination, and that’s where the embrace of the H1-B visa has led them. This is a fight the Valley may well lose.