Silicon Valley ready to play defense on Trump

Silicon Valley ready to play defense on Trump

Addressing some of tech industry's top leaders on Wednesday, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE vowed to make their companies soar.

“I'm here to help you folks do well,” he said.

When it comes to Silicon Valley's wish list for immigration reform, however, many voices in the industry aren't so sure.

Trump's unexpected win has shaken up the immigration battle in the tech community, deflating the high hopes of reformers and forcing them to ready a defense.

Many thought the 2017 fight over immigration reform would play out between Congress and another White House hopeful, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE, whose strong promotion of sweeping reforms had emboldened the tech companies pushing to allow more workers into the country.

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Instead, Silicon Valley may be fighting just to keep some existing visa policies in place.

Trump's position on H-1B visas, which allow companies to hire high-skilled workers, has been inconsistent. But it's his claims that these visas steal jobs from Americans that's left tech leaders unnerved.

“Was there anything that came out of the [Trump] campaign that was encouraging for us? Frankly, I think the answer to that question is no,” Derrick Seaver, executive vice president of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, said after the election.

Trump's Wednesday meeting with some of the industry's top stars — including Uber's Travis Kalanick, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Eric Schmidt and Larry Page of Alphabet — aimed to ease those concerns. And Silicon Valley leaders are ever-hopeful that Trump’s business acumen and repeated vows to boost the economy will give Trump a sympathetic ear for the industries at the center of the new U.S. economy.

“We don't see the incoming administration ... as being just overtly hostile to the interests of Silicon Valley business,” Seaver said. “Silicon Valley is the innovation generator of the country, and we think that that's going to be recognized — we hope it's going to be recognized.”

Still, Seaver said when it comes to immigration reform, “there might be a little bit more playing defense, going forward, than playing offense.”

Lawmakers who had hoped to win immigration reforms through legislation are also shifting their plans.

Trump's decision to nominate Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE (R-Ala.), a staunch opponent of comprehensive reform, to head the Justice Department, combined with talks with Kris Kobach, another conservative hard-liner, have added to their gloomy outlook.

“At this point personnel is policy,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley. “If you take a look at who he's [talking to] — Kris Kobach? Jeff Sessions? — it does not look very rosy.”

Inaction on the issue will carry economic consequences, Lofgren warned.

She said her office was recently contacted by an unnamed CEO of a small startup who's struggling to secure a visa and was just offered permanent residence in Canada.

“I don't know what to tell him,” she said. “It's not like we're the only game in town. You know, they're getting offers from around the world.”

Fueling those fears, Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart News chief who will be a top White House adviser next year, has pushed back hard against any expansion of the H-1B program. In a November 2015 interview with Trump, Bannon suggested there are too many Asians running Silicon Valley already, vowing “always ... to be to the right of you on this.”

“A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society,” Bannon said.

Rep. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezWe are running out of time to protect Dreamers Gutiérrez makes moves toward presidential run: report Gutiérrez leaving Congress, rules out bid for mayor, governor MORE (D-Ill.) warned that adopting such a position would be a mistake. By having fewer new high-skilled workers — or even just keeping the status quo — Washington policymakers risk losing some of the world's most talented minds to more welcoming nations, he said.

“Hopefully, we can be a more inviting and a friendlier destination for people's talent. Because it's a real competitive environment out there,” he said. “I want to tell people, ‘Bring your wife! And guess what? She gets to work! She gets to have a full life here!’

“Because in other places she does.”

Trump’s campaign hinged largely on a message of reining in immigration, illegal and legal, for the sake of creating jobs for Americans, and his campaign website vowed to press companies “to hire from the domestic pool of unemployed.”

In a March debate, he walked back that hard line, saying he's “changing” his position to acknowledge that “we absolutely have to be able to keep the brain power in this country.”

A week later, at another debate, he flipped again.

“I know the H-1B very well, and it’s something that I, frankly, use and I shouldn’t be allowed to use it,” he said. “We shouldn’t have it. Very, very bad for workers.”

The flip-flopping has left reform advocates scratching their heads.

“I have no idea what he's going to do,” Lofgren said. 

Grover Norquist, a conservative anti-tax activist who has long supported immigration reform efforts, pointed to a reason for Silicon Valley to be hopeful: In Trump's latest book, he proposes to pay for his border wall by increasing fees on temporary visas, which include H-1Bs.

“[He] is saying he wants more high-talent-level education ... which is exactly what the high-tech companies and other companies need because the world doesn't have enough computer programmers,” said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

“So I assume that he'll try to do an increase in high-skilled immigration and the guys who want to get PhDs in math and science and computer science here in the United States and tell them, ‘Stay if you want, here's a green card.’”

That idea is backed by both Republicans and Democrats, said Norquist, who argued “it just was held hostage by Obama to a comprehensive plan.”

Trump campaigned on bolstering a border wall, deporting everyone in the country illegally and axing Obama's program allowing people brought to the country illegally as kids to remain and work. But there is a possibility he'll soften that tone once in office.

Already Trump has suggested that the people benefiting from Obama's executive action won't be deported.

“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” he told Time magazine.

One major Trump donor who has maintained a relationship with the president-elect said that Trump will likely also change his tack on the high-skilled-worker visas.

“He wants an immigration policy that makes sense for America,” the donor said. “He gets the H-1B thing. He will not compromise safety but he wants to make America more innovative.”