A little-noticed executive order signed by President Donald Trump last month could be the first step in tightening restrictions on guest-worker visas that nourish South Florida’s growing high-tech business sector, a move that some businesses claim could have serious economic consequences, several key industry figures say.
The visa, known as the H-1B, is for skilled foreign professionals, and it’s primarily used by high-tech workers. Miami ranks a surprisingly high 38th as a destination city for H-1B holders taking jobs in a quietly growing South Florida industry hub that has made Florida the fourth-largest state in terms of high-tech employment, according to industry association CompTia.
“Miami is on a path,” said billionaire healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez. “You’re starting to see Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook open offices in Miami, and you’re starting to see venture-capital companies in Miami that will fund high-tech startups.
“That wouldn’t have happened without those visas, and it won’t continue if the visas are restricted.”
Trump’s executive order, signed on April 18, doesn’t specifically say the H-1B visa will be curtailed, but its title — “Presidential Executive Order on Buy American and Hire American” — leaves little doubt about the direction the president is heading.
The order instructs four cabinet members — the heads of the Justice, Labor, State and Homeland Security departments — to “propose new rules and issue new guidance” to “protect the interest of United States workers in the administration of our immigration system.”
Immigration-watchers expect the proposed rules to start rolling in over the next four to six months. They could range from cutting the number of visas (U.S. law sets a cap of 88,000 a year on them, but doesn’t say they all must be awarded) to cutting their length (with renewals, they can now last up to six years) or putting restrictions on who is eligible for them.
New rules could also make the visas much more expensive by raising the amount companies have to pay immigrant workers.
That is grim music to the ears of Miami’s tech companies.
“Miami is still playing catch-up in the tech industry,” said Seth Cassel, the 35-year-old president and co-founder of EveryMundo, a digital marketing technology and services company that helps airlines compete with travel websites like Expedia. “We’re small but growing, and we need every resource we can get.”
EveryMundo’s workforce of about 60 includes several H-1B visa-holders from Asia and Latin America and Cassel expects to hire more in the future. It’s not that he doesn’t want to hire Americans, but it’s not always easy to find one with the skills he needs.
“We’re an idiosyncratic company in a very complicated business,” he said. “We operate at this intersection of airlines, high-tech and software, and because our clients are all over the world, we need multilingual workers. So we’re looking for language skills, highly specific technical skills, and industry knowledge, none of which are in high supply.
“When we recruit, we’re not explicitly seeking out foreigners. But they find us … And if we can’t find that talent more readily, we hire foreigners.”
The need for skilled high-tech workers ripples out well beyond the tech industry itself, said Miami immigration attorney Tammy Fox-Isicoff.
“We’re the gateway to Latin America here,” she said. “Virtually every multinational that does business in Latin America has corporate offices in Miami. Airlines, hotel chains, pharmacy groups ... If those companies can’t get in the people they need, they’ll just take their business and off-shore it.”
Pinning down the exact numbers of H-1B visa workers in South Florida is not easy. Though records compiled from the Labor Department show that it was asked to certify 2,619 applications for the visas for 2017, an application can include more than one employee name, so the number of workers could be much higher.
(Labor Department certification is the first step in the complicated H-1B process; if it’s granted, the visa must be approved by the citizenship and immigration wing of the Homeland Security Department, and granted by the State Department.)
And not every company that employs H-1B visa-holders is anxious to talk about it. The University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine applies for more H-1B workers than any other institution in South Florida, filing 111 applications with the Labor Department for 2017 for jobs with an average annual salary of $102,000, according to myvisa.com, which tracks visa applications.
But a school spokesman declined to answer questions from the Miami Herald: “The University of Miami does not comment on personnel matters.”
Many high-tech executives say they need foreign workers because American colleges don’t turn out enough graduates in so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math. Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs, when President Barack Obama asked him in 2010 why the company couldn’t manufacture its computers and phones in the United States, famously snapped that he’d need 30,000 industrial engineers for the factories. “You can’t find that many in America to hire,” Jobs said.
But not everyone accepts that — or the need for the H-1B visa program, either.
“They’ve been claiming that since 1990,” said John Miano, a computer-programmer-turned-attorney and co-author of Sold Out, a 2015 book harshly critical of the visa program. “If America has really been short of engineers and computer scientists all that time, you’d think you’d see a lot kids enrolling in those programs, especially the way the economy has been for the last decade.”
Miano argues that the H-1B visa system was rammed through Congress — “the best legislation that money can buy” — by an industry that wanted to hold salaries down by importing cheaper foreign labor.
“A lot of the people who get theses visas apply for green cards while they’re working, so what this really amounts to is several years of indentured servitude to an American tech company,” he said. “If this really had anything to do with fairness to workers, why don’t we give the visas out to individuals instead of providing them only through the companies?”
Miano also pointed out several cases in which American workers claim they’ve been fired to make way for cheaper foreign workers using visas, including one last year in South Florida involving Carnival Corp.
Supporters of the visas, though, say that abuses are few and don’t discredit the whole system.
“Every government program you have, of any type, there’s always somebody who doesn’t follow the law,” said attorney Fox-Isicoff. “There are people who abuse food stamps, there are people who cheat on their taxes. In any program there’s some percentage of abuse …
“But on H-1B, it’s a statistically insignificant number of immigrants we’re talking about, a tiny percentage of the U.S. workforce. The thing to do is investigate and punish the cheating, not eliminate the whole program.”
Healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.
Follow Glenn Garvin on Twitter: @glenngarvin
Top South Florida companies that request H-1B visas
Here is a list by myvisajobs.com on top 20 companies asking for Labor Department approval of visas for foreign employees.
University Of Miami-Miller School Of Medicine
Florida International University
Tata Consultancy Services
Cognizant Technology Solutions
World Fuel Services
Public Health Trust