Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a Council Member At Large and Former Mayor Pro Tem for the Town of Morrisville and an Opinion Writer for WRAL Tech Wire.  He served on the Board of the New American Economy, now the American Immigration Council, and on the NC League of Municipalities Race and Equity Task Force. He is a regular contributing writer to WRAL TechWire.

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MORRISVILLE – Everyone knows the tech industry is in crisis. Facebook parent-company Meta recently reduced its workforce by 13 percent and with Elon Musk as chief twit,” Twitter has laid off almost two-thirds of its workforce and terminated about 80% of its contract workers. Across the country, it’s estimated that over 73,000 tech workers have lost their jobs.

But if you’re ones of the immigrants who make up 20 to 30% of workers at these companies, the situation is even more dire. Suddenly thousands of people whose visas are directly tied to their employment — including hundreds at Meta and Twitter alone — have been left without jobs. If they can’t get new jobs within 60 days, they’ll be forced to leave the country. This reveals just how rigid our high skilled immigration system is—and why that lack of agility threatens American innovation.

I’ve written before about the major problems with our high skilled visa system. Immigrants must compete for an artificially constrained number of H-1B skilled-worker visas. Workers who win the lottery are anchored to the specific company that hired them, and can only change employers with great difficulty. Worst of all, immigrants from high-population countries like India and China are forced to wait decades before they can finally graduate from their H-1B visa and obtain a green card.

Steve Rao

Critics might argue that tech companies can’t support these workers right now, so better cut them loose. But that’s incredibly short sighted. First, it completely ignores the major investment we’ve already made in these workers. So many of them are trained at our first-rate colleges and universities and went on to hone their skills at American startups and high-tech enterprises. Casting them off will, by default, sent them into the arms of Shanghai, Guangdong or Bangalore-based companies.

Second, not every tech market is shrinking. Right here in North Carolina, we’ve seen plenty of layoffs. But we’ve also seen those losses offset by the creation of new tech jobs, with companies including Apple, FUJIFILM, and Fidelity all increasing their presence. Many local employers are eager to hire foreign-born workers into new technical positions. But H-1B visas aren’t easily transferrable, making it extremely difficult for immigrants to simply hop from one job to another.

Third, visa restrictions have long made it nearly impossible for H-1B holders to launch their own companies. Venture firms are offering laid-off workers seed money to start their own businesses, and it’s estimated that as many as one-quarter of sacked tech workers try to start their own companies. But skilled immigrants are largely shut out of that process — in fact, some immigration lawyers are now advising laid-off immigrants to consider starting businesses in Canada instead, since the visa process is significantly easier there.

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Losing these workers isn’t just bad news for the workers and their families, or the communities where they’ve put down roots, bought homes, and raised children. It’s bad news for the entire North Carolina innovation economy — because collectively, these immigrant workers represent a vast amount of time, money, and energy that our business community has invested in navigating America’s byzantine immigration system to secure the talent they need.

Immigrants make up just 8% of our state’s population, but they account for at least 20% of all our state’s workers in vital sectors such as computer and math sciences, driving billions of dollars in economic value. When these individuals get laid off and have to leave the country, companies can’t simply rehire them a few weeks or months down the line. They’ll all have to re-enter the H-1B lottery with no guarantees.

We’ve got to rewrite our visa policies now or risk losing many thousands of immigrants with specialized skills. That means streamlining the H-1B system, so companies can hire workers more easily. It means giving existing visa-holders more flexibility to change employers or to start businesses of their own. And it means ending the country cap system so all skilled immigrants have a viable path to a green card regardless of their country of origin.

The skilled immigration system has been outmoded for years, but tech layoffs have brought the crisis to a head. It’s time for Democrats and Republicans in Washington to implement the smart, pragmatic reforms. Give businesses and workers the flexibility they need to weather these turbulent times—and prepare for the future.