Clinton Calms Silicon Valley’s Worries, Promises To Preserve High-Skill Visas

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton vowed on Thursday to uphold the high-skill visas prized by the tech industry as part of comprehensive immigration reform, clarifying media reports that suggested her position on immigration policy would make it harder for Silicon Valley companies to hire talented workers.

“Part of what we have to be strong in standing for is a credible path forward for reform that is truly comprehensive, addressing all aspects of the system. Including immigrants living here today, those who wish to come in the days ahead. From highly skilled workers to family members. To those seeking refuge from violence wherever that might occur,” Clinton said, speaking to a room full of Latino activists during a speech at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) conference luncheon.

“To families this is an issue that matters more than we can measure. There’s nothing I take more seriously.”

The tech industry has been a major supporter of immigration reform in general, but particularly favors the high-skill or H-1B visa program, which allows companies to hire immigrants to fill technical positions.

Clinton’s comments come after Vox reported her immigration stance would hamper the tech industry’s ability to recruit international talent through H-1B visas.

In her Vox interview, Clinton said:

The idea of a comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship that I would envision is one that would deal with a lot of these concerns, not just the 11 million people here: how we would regularize them, what kind of steps they’d have to go through. Because I believe they do have to meet certain standards if they’re going to be on a path to citizenship.

But I don’t want to mix that with other kinds of changes in visas and other concerns that particularly high-value technical companies have. In fact, I think keeping the pressure on them helps us resolve the bigger problem, and then we can look to see what else, if anything, can and should be done.

Immigration has become a very partisan issue, with Democrats championing a overhaul of the current system and Republicans, to an extent, cherry-picking high-skilled visas as the one component of the current system that should not only be protected but expanded.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has made repeated anti-immigrant comments about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and restricting Muslims from entering the country, embraced the program as a way to diversify the tech industry and create jobs in a policy proposal last year.

H-1B visas are contentious in part because they seemingly pit American workers against immigrants for coveted highly paid jobs in Silicon Valley, but also because the program has been criticized for exploitative behavior, including wage theft.

Clinton made sure to clarify her earlier comments to Vox at Thursday’s event, emphasizing that preserving the rights and protections of high-skilled visa holders is just as important as those afforded to the Latinos who hold 25 percent of American construction jobs.

The former New York senator was certainly critical of the potential abuses of the H-1B visa program in her Vox interview, including how the program can often displace Americans because visa holders tend to be paid comparably less — even though tech-industry wages overall are much higher than national average.

“The many stories of people training their replacements from some foreign country are heartbreaking, and it is obviously a cost-cutting measure to be able to pay people less than what you would pay an American worker,” she told Vox.

But immigration advocates are confident in Clinton’s proposals and agree with the former secretary of state’s assessment that high-skilled visas are just one part of comprehensive immigration reform.

“The notion that somehow tech is being demoted doesn’t make sense to me,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “The evolution of one voice doesn’t require the demotion of another voice. I think everyone who has been involved in immigration reform has understood that this is an effort that requires bipartisanship.”

Moreover, reform means securing worker rights and protections for all immigrants. “The component parts depend on each other,” Johnson said. “There are no categories for less skilled workers to come here legally and they work around it…You can’t have just high-skilled immigration or low-skilled immigration — you need both.”