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Stephen Tang: Trump’s Rumored Overhaul of Visa Program Would Harm Innovation

President Trump’s next order of business is allegedly an overhaul of the U.S. H-1B work-visa program, which allows employers, particularly tech companies, to recruit highly skilled workers from abroad. An overhaul of the program would be an attempt to protect American workers and American jobs, the administration has said.

A bill that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would force businesses to try to hire Americans first. And if they recruit foreign workers, they’ll have to pay them a minimum wage of $130,000.

Science Center president and CEO Stephen Tang has long vocalized why we should do the exact opposite. Immigrant entrepreneurs have been steering the economy for ages, Tang says, and we need to expand the H-1B visa program to make it easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to work here. Here he shares why the H-1B visa program is fundamental to Philly’s innovation economy and the U.S. economy overall.

Reports this week have said that President Donald Trump’s next move will be to overhaul the H-1B work visa program. Why does this alarm you?

The H-1B visa has been used by tech companies and by intellectual property–driven ventures as a way of staffing their companies with folks with extraordinary talent or skills that can’t be found here in the U.S.

What I am calling for is an actual increase in the H-1B visa program to accommodate the needs of these entrepreneurial firms, among others, so I’m concerned if the H-1B visa program does anything but expand. I think there is clearly a demand for it.

It would be very sad to see a rather blunt-force policy either directly or indirectly or unintentionally affect the fate of entrepreneurs and immigrant entrepreneurs who have been guiding the economy throughout our history.

What would happen if Trump were to tamper with the H-1B visa by making requirements more stringent?

The Science Center’s role is to help create high-growth jobs and high-growth companies and high-growth industries, and these companies rely on specialized skills that aren’t readily available here in the U.S. or here by American citizens. It would have a dramatic effect in the overall growth rate of our growing innovation and entrepreneurship economy.

Those looking to turn the visa program on its head have said America needs to focus on protecting the American worker and that these companies need to try to hire Americans first. Is it realistic that these companies can just find Americans to replace immigrants and those on H-1B visas?

I think anybody that’s trying to employ the best people will look locally to try to make their hires. It’s a well-known fact and it’s been documented in the America Competes report, which I helped draft five or six years ago, that we have a shortage of STEM-based skilled workers. That is why we have to go to the outside to permit immigrants, many who have come to our universities to study, to remain in this country. So it’s not for a lack of trying. If we are a country that is built on the best and hiring the best, then we need to seek the best.

In many cases these are students who come to our country into our universities. And by the way, when a foreign student comes to an American university, that’s actually an import for us. That helps our balance of trade. We need to retain them. It’s not in our best interest to turn them back to their own native countries to become scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in their own right to compete against us.

Another argument is that the tech companies exploit workers with H-1B visas by paying them low wages to save cash. What’s your response tot hat argument?

I believe that that is a market issue, and I believe that the market will equilibrate at the right price to pay these employees. I’m not aware of employers who are in it for the long term that would do anything but treat employers fairly, and that goes for the H-1B visa holders as well.

The community of scientists and engineers who dominate these H-1B visas have a lot of transparency in what these jobs pay. They are very sought-after by headhunters and others. I would be surprised if there is widespread suppression of wages through H-1B.

Can you speak to how many H-1B visa holders we have here in Philadelphia or the companies that rely on these skilled workers?

That’s not a question I can ask companies specifically. But I assure you that the number of immigrants that are involved with ventures at the Science Center is a large number. I think close to a third of our 70-plus companies in our business incubator are founded by someone born outside of the U.S. The number of founders just from the outside would lead me to believe that they are friendly organizations and would welcome folks with H-1B visas.

What do you think the Philly community can do to push back against H-1B tampering?

The uncertainty, fear, and confusion that’s been caused so far in the immigration process even over the past week has created a lot of stress in organizations and individuals.

Business relies on predictability, and anything that changes predictability hurts business. So highlighting the number of examples of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who have been troubled or who have had real issues with this current immigration policy has to be part of the overall coverage.

And dispelling some of the myths that somehow H-1B visas harm American citizens. That’s just not true. These are jobs that are available for everyone, and perhaps the ultimate strategy would be to steer more American citizens towards STEM-based skills, jobs, and education.

You’ve been very vocal about immigrant entrepreneurs. Will the Science Center as a whole at some point make a statement against the new administration should they move forward with an order to curtail H-1B visas?

I think that’s possible. One of my roles in addition to the Science Center role is co-chairperson of the National Advisory Council for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which meets Thursday and Friday in Washington. I’m very interested to see the developments there. We might even hear from some new folks within the administration, because our job is to advise the U.S. secretary of commerce. Stay tuned.

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Kristen Fitch

Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing