NEW YORK - Israelis in New York are following the U.S. presidential campaign too, not that they’re taking it to heart. For some, living in the United States means that for the first time they can stop worrying about politics. They can chuckle when liberal American friends threaten to leave the country if Donald Trump wins.
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And while Trump threatens to deport illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country, he seems indifferent to Israelis.
Yet Trump’s anti-immigration policy might crush the American dream of thousands of young Israelis living in the United States and those still in Israel that fantasize about relocating to Silicon Valley, to the East Coast’s pharma companies or even to Boston’s labs and classrooms.
While Trump has hogged the spotlight with his attacks on illegal immigrants, he has also criticized the influx of foreign workers in the so-called STEM professions – science, technology, engineering and math. And he has promised to reform the H-1B visa program that allows high-skilled workers, among them hundreds of Israelis annually, to relocate to the United States.
A few days after accepting the Republican nomination, when Trump was asked about the H-1B visa during a Reddit chat with fans, he directed them to his official platform, where he promises to force employers to hire Americans before hiring H-1B visa holders.
“We graduate two times more Americans with STEM degrees each year than find STEM jobs, yet as much as two-thirds of entry-level hiring for IT jobs is accomplished through the H-1B program,” the platform states.
Trump elaborated in a statement in March. “The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” he said.
As he put it, “I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse . I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
The H-1B visa first became controversial during the high-tech boom of the ‘90s, but it returned to the fore last year amid media reports on Americans being fired and asked to train their foreign replacements. In January, a story in the journal Science criticized the program, this time reflecting rising resentment among STEM graduate students who fear for their employment prospects in academia where, unlike in industry, H-1B visas aren’t capped.
If Trump intends to limit H-1B visas in academia too, this could have an effect on Israel post-doc students in the United States, many of whom switch to an H-1B when their research visa ends.
“It would be a disaster,” says Dr. Stav Kemeny, a post-doctorate student at Columbia University. She also runs the New York chapter of Science Abroad, a nonprofit group that seeks to build a community for Israeli scientists, doctors and entrepreneurs living abroad.
Kemeny says that while Israeli post-docs usually arrive in the United States on a J-1 research visa, many switch to an H-1B when the J-1 expires, as post-doc students sometimes need more time to complete their research.
“We all depend on the H-1B visas; if we don’t have the possibility to switch to an H-1B visa, we all have to leave before completing our research,” she says.
In 2015, 532 Israelis were granted H-1B visas, and 500 H-4 visas went to family members. As this visa is awarded for three years and can be renewed after three years, lots of Israelis are currently working in the United States with this permission. Israel has one of the highest percentage of H-1B visa holders per capita.
But even if Trump wins the election, Israelis looking to work in the United States may not have to give up on their American dream just yet, as Trump’s platform wouldn’t be easy to implement.
“Generally, I’m very skeptical about major changes in immigration policy,” says Prof. Rey Koslowski from SUNY Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy. Koslowski is also a co-author of the paper “The Battle for the Brains: Why Immigration Policy is not Enough to Attract the Highly Skilled.”
“It really depends on what the Congress looks like,” he says. “Moreover, in Trump’s party there are more supporters of the H-1B visa than those who oppose it, so I don’t think he can get a majority there. He’ll have to reach across the aisle.”
Koslowski says that regardless of Congress’ makeup, drastic immigration reforms are very hard to undertake. “Immigration policy is the third rail of American politics,” he says. “Politicians may talk about it but not propose legislation, nor be willing to put their political capital behind it.”
Then there are the employers of the H-1B workers, the IT and drug companies. “These are powerful industries, and this is one of their key issues, so they will exert their power,” Koslowski says. “And if you are a congressmen from California, are you going to cross Silicon Valley?”
So would a Hillary Clinton presidency mean more H-1B visas for STEM professions? And how would a Clinton victory affect the aspirations of Israeli STEM experts?
During the campaign Clinton has kept silent on the issue, but in the past she has spoken for increasing the annual visa cap for H-1Bs.
“I am reaffirming my commitment to the H-1B visa and increasing the current cap,” Clinton said during a speech in Silicon Valley in 2007. “Foreign skilled workers contribute greatly to what we have to do in being innovators.”
As Cyrus Mehta, chairman of the Ethics Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, has put it in The Economic Times, “If Clinton does support an increase in H-1B visa numbers and understands the benefit that the H-1B program brings to U.S. companies and to the consumer, perhaps it is strategic for her to not say anything at this point.”
Clinton’s past statements in support of H-1B visas and her silence during the campaign suggest she will support the visa program if she becomes president and push Congress to expand it rather than curtail it.
Koslowski believes that Clinton supports an expansion and says it might be easier for her to implement her platform than for Trump to limit the program.
“If Clinton is elected, I would not be surprised if she takes Obama’s immigration platform out of the drawer,” he says.