RALEIGH – President Donald Trump’s visit on Monday to tour a Morrisville plant working on a COVID-19 vaccine is another nod to the Triangle’s growing reputation as a biotech hub.

However, it’s also helping reignite a debate over his recent decision to temporarily halt new H-1B visas, which many feel is hurting the region’s innovation. The program brings highly educated foreign workers to the United States to work in plants like FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies, the one he’s visiting today.

Pro-business groups and universities argue that the executive order, which was signed by the president in June and will last until the end of the year, is making it harder for these kinds of companies to recruit the talent necessary to drive progress.

“If you look at North Carolina and much of the Triangle, I’ve seen firsthand many Indian Americans and South Asian families being affected by the restrictions in the H-1B program,” said Steve Rao, a town council member in Morrisville, which has a large South Asian population and is home to several tech companies.

“Some families are being separated, spouses of the H1 B visa holders are not able to work, and I am hearing from many constituents, who have been waiting over ten years, for a green card,” he said. “These are hard working tax payers, who are contributing immensely to supporting and creating the growing tech economy of North Carolina and the new jobs of the new economy.”

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H-1B visas are limited to workers with at least a bachelor’s degree. They are granted for up to three years and can be extended for an additional three years.

However, the U.S. caps the number of approvals each year at 85,000 foreign workers — with demand outpacing supply by a large margin. For the past half a dozen years, the applications for H-1B visas, which are submitted in April, have exceeded the cap in the first five days of the filing period, as reported by The Mercury News.

North Carolina is a heavy user of H-1B visas, especially by the Triangle’s technology companies and universities.

There were 11,300 H-1Bs approved in the Durham-Chapel-Hill area between 2010 and 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

Ashley Brown, director of Research Services at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, believes the U.S. economy – and the Triangle – needs this talent and should remove hurdles to bringing over these high-skilled immigrants.

“When looking at the founding of the United States’ largest startups — widely known as “unicorns” (startups with an estimated value of $1 billion or more) — immigrants play a starring role,” she wrote in a Kenan Insights blog post.

According to a report from the National Foundation of American Policy, as of October 2018, she citied 50 of the 91 unicorn startups (or 55 percent) had at least one immigrant founder. These immigrant-founded startups employ an average of more than 1,200 workers each, and have a collective value of $248 billion.

In the current era of global talent competition, she suggested instituting startup visas and a STEM visa program to attract high-skilled international entrepreneurs and STEM workers.

“Reforms must be made to the H-1B program so that it addresses cyclical and secular trends in the labor market of emerging and rapidly evolving industries,” she said.

Trump’s order on H-1B visas for skilled immigrants will hurt US, Morrisville councilman says