Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

(Updated )

U.S. technology companies large and small rely on immigrants. Now after arguing for years without much success for the government to relax limits on skilled foreign tech workers, the political winds are blowing in the opposite direction. 

It is clear Silicon Valley is a mini-nation of immigrants. More than half of U.S. tech startups valued at $1 billion or more have at least one immigrant founder, according to an analysis this year by the National Foundation for American Policy, an immigration research group. Two of the three largest companies in the world by market cap are led by immigrants to the United States -- Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google.  In two Silicon Valley counties, about two-thirds of people working in computing and mathematics fields are foreign-born, according to a study by research firm Joint Venture Silicon Valley using 2014 U.S. government data.

The big unknown is whether a Donald Trump presidency will lead to a technology immigration talent drain, either by choice or by policy.

Fueled by Immigrants
In two Silicon Valley counties, two-thirds of workers in computing and math occupations were born outside the United States. Other occupations also have large shares of immigrant employees.
Source: Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey
Note: The analysis comprised Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in California.

Of course it's not clear what immigration policies might be pursued by the incoming Trump administration or by a Congress with a clear Republican majority in both the House and Senate. During his campaign, of course, Trump advocated for stricter limits on immigration.

His views certainly make it unlikely that one of the tech industry's top policy agenda items for years -- an expansion of the H-1B visa program for skilled foreign workers -- will happen soon. The program is aimed at foreign employees considered to have specialized skills, and tech executives are eager to raise the current cap of 85,000 people a year granted such visas. Such an expansion as part of broader immigration legislation has already been in deep freeze because it is politically toxic both among left-leaning labor groups and advocates of stricter immigration curbs. 

Companies that hire white-collar tech workers from abroad to work on U.S. tech projects -- including Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., Accenture PLC, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. -- are among the biggest applicants for H1-B visas. And their shares took a hit on Wednesday in reaction to the presidential election. Tata's share price fell nearly 5 percent during Mumbai's market day, while Cognizant and Accenture were dipping 5 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively, during the U.S. trading session.

President Obama, without going through Congress, enacted some items on the tech industry's immigration wish list, including a policy change last spring that would grant temporary visas for foreigners who start U.S. companies. The proposal wasn't exclusive to the technology industry, but it was seen as a way to address the industry's central policy priority. The same executive powers that the Obama White House used to relax immigration rules could now be used to tighten them. 

Silicon Valley pushed hard for Hillary Clinton to win -- or more precisely, many technology executives pushed hard against Donald Trump,  in part because of his views on foreign workers. The industry is still waking up from the surprise outcome on election night, but they'll soon have to grapple with how his presidency might hurt the immigrant engine of the tech industry.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

(Adds new sixth paragraph on stock performance of companies that are among the biggest applicants for H1-B visas.)

  1. Pichai isn’t the CEO of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., but he is the powerful chief executive of Alphabet's largest subsidiary. Google co-founder Larry Page is CEO of the parent company. The company's other founder, Sergey Brin, was born in the former Soviet Union.

  2. With the notable exception of prominent tech investor Peter Thiel. 

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net