Cesar de la Fuente is at risk of losing more than half of his research lab to deportation.
Tighter visa restrictions have the University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor fearing that the eight international researchers in his 10-member lab might be forced to leave if they can’t find an exception to the new regulations.
“We only have two Americans in the lab right now. So everyone else, I’m worried for them.”
On June 22, President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending new work visas until the end of the year, reasoning that it will force companies that rely on the visas to hire more Americans, instead. The order includes restrictions on the H-1B, a visa that allows employers to hire highly skilled foreign workers for specialty occupations.
Large technology companies in the area such as Comcast, SAP, IQVIA, and EPAM Systems are leaders in the region for using the H-1B to employ computer programmers, software engineers, and accountants, records show. The H-1B restriction, combined with others on what are known as H-2B, H-4, J, and L visas, is expected to prevent nearly 525,000 immigrants from working in the U.S.
De la Fuente’s researchers, for instance, have to renew their authorization to stay every year under what are called J-1 visas. Under Trump’s order, they could be ordered to leave once those visas expire.
De la Fuente isn’t too worried about his own H-1B visa, which doesn’t expire for two years. But he is worried about how the new rules will interrupt what he sees as the typical pathway for immigrants who work in engineering or medical research. “Anything related to biotech and technology and academia are areas that are very much impacted by this suspension of the H-1B visa,” he said. “They’re typically recruited using this mechanism.”
His own path shows the power of that mechanism. De la Fuente emigrated from Spain to attend the University of British Columbia in Vancouver with a Canadian visa before using a J-1 visa to become a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT Technology Review named him to the list of leading innovators under 35 for 2019.
That year, he joined Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine to lead a research lab in antibiotic and microbiome engineering under an H-1B visa. “Now I’m in the process of basically waiting for my green card application,” aiming to become a permanent resident, he said.
When the new set of restrictions was announced, de la Fuente reached out to his lawyer for advice. She said that as long as his visa remained valid, he wouldn’t be affected. But she also recommended that de la Fuente not leave the U.S. without talking to her first. “In case things get more restricted,” he said.
Immigration lawyer Ralf Wiedemann gives his clients the same advice. “If you don’t have a visa stamp, this affects you, and you should stay here,” he said. He even tells his clients who do have approved visas that they should be cautious about leaving the country, in case of possible future restrictions in the coming months. In his 20 years practicing immigration law, Wiedemann says, this executive order “is one of the worst things that I’ve seen.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which backs restrictions on immigration, disagrees. He wishes Trump had gone further.
Krikorian argues that the ban will mostly affect people queuing up outside of the United States to get in. He also complained that “the downside is that it is just temporary and it is just an executive action that can be rolled back by a different executive.”
Wiedemann took a different tack. Because the H-1B is used by companies and universities alike, he fears that the executive order will widely limit innovation in science and technology. “It’s very short-sighted because universities, employers, employees — they want to have those interactions,” he said. “They learn from the experiences, from the different cultures that people from outside the United States bring to us.”
Krikorian took issue with this notion, too. He says that, in most cases, foreigners with H-1B visas are often “people with middling skills who do routine tech work,” and that many don’t fall into the category of “best and brightest immigrants.” He contends that the most innovative workers are the ones on the EB-1, a notoriously competitive visa that requires applicants to demonstrate international recognition and achievement.
Wiedemann also thinks the restrictions will uniquely affect immigrant families, too. He described one client who started working for a company in the U.S. earlier this year with an approved visa. “The plan was that his family members would come over in the summer, so that the children could start school here in the fall,” Wiedemann said. “Now, these family members are all stuck in their home country.” The only options are for the father to give up his job and return home, or continue working alone in the U.S., hoping that his family will be granted an exception.
The executive order outlines the possibility of such exceptions, but Wiedemann thinks that most applications won’t be granted one. “Since 9/11, there has been a greater tendency [from consular officers] to say no, if you’re unsure whether or not to grant the visa,” Wiedemann said.
De la Fuente hopes that his lab members will qualify for an exception. Since the pandemic began, they have shifted research to developing a diagnostic sensor that would detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in a matter of seconds and finding ways of targeting versions of the virus in mice. The executive order mentions the possibility of exceptions for those “involved with the provision of medical research ... to combat COVID-19.” “I’m hopeful that’s the case and we can continue to do our work,” de la Fuente said.
If an applicant is initially denied an exception, the chances of reversing that decision are slim. Application decisions are left up to consular officers, and Wiedemann says that they are “largely non-reviewable.” He argues this might help shield immigration decisions from interference, but that it also makes them difficult to appeal.
These new restrictions add to the uncertainty that already pervades the H-1B application process. Since 2004, the annual cap for H-1B visas has been 65,000, with an additional 20,000 open to immigrants with a master’s or doctorate degree from a U.S. institution. Those spots are filled through a lottery process.
Britta Glennon, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School, argues that those numbers haven’t been adjusted for the current economy. “Over time, demand has grown and capital has changed,” she said. “And so it’s become more restrictive.” The USCIS announced in April that almost 275,000 initial registrations for H-1B visas were submitted for the 2021 fiscal year.
That increased demand for the H-1B, Glennon says, contributes to growing worries among foreign workers about whether they’ll get one. “One of the reasons why you probably want to do your degree in the U.S. is so that you can get a job in the U.S.,” she said. “If you are no longer confident that you can get an H-1B visa, you’re much less likely to even apply to do your graduate degree.”
Glennon also thinks the executive order will affect the creation of new companies or start-ups in the U.S. She points to a 2012 study showing that one-quarter of tech start-ups in the U.S. were founded by immigrants.
“Maybe you’re thinking about doing a start-up, but, say, your partner is an immigrant,” Glennon said. “You’re now worried about doing that start-up, because you’re not sure anymore that you’ll be able to get that visa.” The alternative for entrepreneurs is to launch the start-up in another country, or worse yet, give up on it altogether.
Spark Therapeutics, a Philadelphia-based biotechnology company that began as a start-up, employed two H-1B workers in 2019, according to data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. That year it was purchased by Roche for $4.8 billion, representing one of the region’s most lucrative such sales.
“We strive to create a workforce of unique viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives to break barriers in gene therapy and reflect the diversity of the world around us,” CEO Jeff Marrazzo wrote in an email. “We therefore oppose new limitations on our ability to access a diverse pool of talent.”
Spark is one of many companies in a growing presence of biotechnology in Philadelphia that could be hurt by the new restrictions, said Dean Miller, CEO of the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital & Technologies. “Biotech and tech companies are two big regular applicants of H-1B visas,” he said. “And in this area, there’s a number of companies that have utilized those.”
A study from the Pew Research Center placed the Philadelphia region as the sixth highest metropolitan area having H-1B workers from 2010 to 2016, with a total of 34,300 visa approvals. That number might seem low in comparison to the size of larger companies in the area, but Miller says that losing them would negatively impact the local economy. “All those workers have an opportunity to earn a wage and to spend that wage,” he said. “And if they’re not based here — wherever they might be, that’s where those dollars are going to go.”
Miller also doubts that those jobs can be replaced by U.S. workers. “The truth is this demand is such that these programs are needed on top of the supply of American-born and -trained technology workers.” Without better education for science and technology in the U.S., Miller argues, there will always be a need for companies to hire highly skilled workers from other countries.
Part of the reason de la Fuente moved to Philadelphia was for its growing status as a biotech hub. And he wanted to be a part of that community.
Now, he’s not sure. “Innovation is really at the root of biotechnology and the start-up world,” he said. “It really relies on this incredibly skillful workforce that comes from countries outside of the U.S. and I think this will directly impact a lot of biotechs.”