Analysis |

Israel Is Safe From Trump's Tech Visa Freeze - for Now

In Donald Trump's 'America First,' there will be no sentiment for friends, and there's no telling where this will end - even if Israelis hardly use H-1B visas.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
Illustration: A technology firm.
Illustration: A technology firm.Credit: Hagai Frid
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

When the Trump White House announced last Friday it was freezing fast-track H-1B visa applications for high-tech professionals, the reaction was surprisingly mild.

A hue and cry arose in Silicon Valley and way off in India, the two places to be most affected, but there were no impromptu rallies at airports and lawyers weren’t rushing to court seeking injunctions.

Maybe it’s because the H-1B freeze only affects a few tens of thousands of high-tech professionals, none of whom are fleeing wars or repressive governments. Maybe it’s because the public can’t maintain a constant level of outrage amid a flood of maddening executive orders and invective from the White House. Less than a day after the visa announcement, Trump was accusing Obama of wiretapping his phones, turning H-1B into yesterday’s controversy.

Also, maybe the average American doesn’t realize how much the high-tech they think of as a testament to American ingenuity is in fact highly reliant not only on foreign coders, but foreign entrepreneurs and innovators.

Yet, as minor as it may seem, the H-1B freeze marks another step in the physical and legal barriers Trump is erecting around America, and it should serve as another reminder to Israelis who think that their country can only do well by the new president.

First, a few boring details. H-1B is a category of visa the United States issues to American companies that need to bring in foreign specialists. There are 85,000 places annually for the three-year visa, which can be filled by doctors and bankers and engineers. But the industry that benefits the most is high-tech.

On the surface, H-1B would seem to be nothing very controversial. Critics say educated, talented foreigners take away jobs from Americans, and there is a degree of truth to that. Some 70% of the quota is used by Indian IT companies doing outsourcing work – they bring in their own employees to work in America at lower pay than Americans would get. To add insult to injury, in some cases, it’s the fired Americans who have to train them. Even before Trump took office, there were efforts to reform the system and officials were toughening up the application process.

The only part of the H-1B program being frozen is the premium service, which speeds up your application from three to six months to just 15 days. But nearly everyone pays for the premium service. Suspending it effectively brings the entire foreign tech program to a standstill because no employer can wait months to see whether a job can be filled – all the more so because the number of applicants is three times the quota. The odds are against an applicant getting approval at all.

So, few believe the official explanation that the freeze is a simple administrative step designed to clear up a backlog of applications. Trump is all about America First, and in addition to tearing up trade agreements, building walls and blocking refugees, the seemingly innocuous six-month freeze means all the positions open for the next round of H-1B applicants starting April 1 will almost all go to Americans.

Love, and business

Oddly enough, Israelis don’t make much use of the program. There are tens of thousands of them in Silicon Valley and more in other tech centers like Boston and New York, but they use other visa channels to work in America. Because H-1B has become such a crapshoot, any of the other alphabet soup of visa categories is a better alternative. In 2014, just 597 of H1-B visas were issued to Israelis, a little more than a third the number five years before.

The H-1B freeze doesn’t hurt Israelis right now, but Trump is just getting started and even he probably doesn’t know how it’s going to end.

Trump may love Israel more than other foreign country, except maybe Russia. He may wish the settlements all his best and dream at night of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. But jobs are jobs and if America is first, even your best friend is second.

Silicon Valley has been good to Israel. A lot of Israelis learn the ins and outs of the high-tech industry there. They bring back their skills to Israel or start up companies in America that create jobs back at home. Even home-grown Israeli startups need America – it’s where the customers, investors and partner companies are. There would be no Check Point, Waze, Amdocs or Wix if the U.S. wasn’t creating the conditions for Israelis to live and work. And inevitably, erecting barriers to the flow of people is going to hurt Israel even if Trump’s main targets are China, Mexico and India.

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