Technology giants are urging President Trump to leave what they call a crucial talent pool out of the trade discord: Chinese workers.
Dean Garfield, chief executive of the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other companies, said its members are alarmed at reports the White House is considering a ban on Chinese citizens conducting high-tech research at American universities and businesses.
The firms rely on skilled foreign labor to develop new products, Garfield said.
“We’ve heard from many, if not all, of our members,” he said, “that steps to limit access to talent have a direct negative impact on their ability to run their businesses.”
President Trump has pledged to shrink the $375 billion trade gap between the United States and China, which he says destroys jobs in the Rust Belt. Beyond threatening to slap tariffs on Chinese goods, Trump has floated ideas to curb student visas for Chinese citizens.
A high-level U.S. delegation, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, is scheduled to begin talks Thursday with Chinese leaders in Beijing.
The New York Times reported this week that the Commerce Department, spooked by China’s advancing technological capabilities, might move to bar Chinese citizens from participating in “sensitive” research at U.S. universities and technology companies. (The White House and the Commerce Department did not respond to requests for comment.)
Which projects the White House considers “sensitive” remains unclear, according to the Times, but Beijing has announced its intentions to outpace the world in microchip, electric car and artificial intelligence technologies.
Business leaders cautioned that such a ban could hurt the U.S. economy. Tech firms often work with scientists from across the globe, Garfield said.
“With AI, for example, you may have a scientist in California partnering closely with a scientist from Beijing or Brussels,” he said. “Stopping that talent from moving freely is against the national interest.”
About 600,000 technology jobs sit open in the U.S. today, he said. Companies in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs often recruit foreign workers because of a shortage of Americans with specialized skills.
About a tenth of the nation’s visas for high-skilled foreign workers went to Chinese citizens last year, slightly more than in 2016, said Sarah Pierce, who studies such employment trends for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
That’s roughly 36,000 workers. Seventy percent of the 179,049 H1-B visas granted in 2017 went to employees in computer-related fields.
“It’s extremely important in the tech world,” Pierce said.
Mehul Patel, chief executive of Hired, a San Francisco company that connects job seekers and businesses, said more restrictions on foreign nationals would make it even harder for companies to find workers.
“For a long time, the tech community has been frustrated by how hard it is to bring in desperately needed talented workers from other countries,” he said in an email. “The loss of talented Chinese tech talent could very well have a negative impact on the U.S.'s ability to stay competitive in the global tech economy.”
Frank Wu, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law and author of “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White,” said policies that target a particular nationality risk heightening discrimination.
“People who are angry don’t pause to distinguish,” Wu said. “Once you’re angry at people identified by their race or ethnicity or national origin, you don’t usually stop and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a U.S. passport. You’re okay.’ ”