The ongoing chaos surrounding US immigration policy poses a unique threat to the Massachusetts economy in its role as a global center for technology and medical science. Employers should be concerned.
The Boston Globe published two compelling articles this week illustrating the vulnerability that knowledge-economy states like Massachusetts face amid potential travel bans, visa limitations and expedited removal proceedings.
The first article detailed how limits on H1B visas for skilled foreign workers hinder the growth of technology and other companies in Massachusetts. The Globe told the story of Brightcove, a high-flying video cloud services company and its fruitless attempts to obtain an H1B visa for a British software engineer who worked for 18 months to create the company’s new media delivery platform.
The H1-B program, as most employers know, is capped at 65,000 visas, with an additional 20,000 available to graduates of US universities with advanced degrees. Employers sought more than 236,000 H1B visas last year, so visas are awarded through a highly competitive lottery run by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Technology companies fear that President Donald Trump, who has called the H1B a “cheap labor program,” may reduce the already strained visa cap.
The issue is an important one for Massachusetts. Brightcove employs 500 people and added 100 new employees last year, according to the Globe, but finds it increasingly difficult to attract skilled people in an economy running at 2.8 percent unemployment.
Brightcove ended up sending its key engineer back to England and creating a five-person product team overseas.
“If you want to go hire someone out of a top engineering school like MIT, by the time you get there, they’ve got five offers from big software companies that are many times larger than us,” Brightcove CEO David Mendels told the newspaper.
The second article reported that Massachusetts’ teaching hospitals are under intense pressure to reject qualified international medical students applying for residencies in the United States because of fears that President Trump’s immigration policies may bar the students from entering the country. Those fears escalated after an Iranian scientist who had obtained a visa to conduct research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital was twice prevented from entering the United States under President Trump’s initial immigration order.
Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, chief executive of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said “hospitals are being given an impossible choice” between hiring the best candidates, regardless of nationality, and ensuring they have residents ready to care for patients in July.
“This has served our country so well,” he said of the system used to funnel foreign medical graduates into the United States, “and it’s a tragedy that it’s being disrupted by uncertainty.”
Massachusetts has a significant stake in the issue not only because health care represents a significant contributor to the economy, but also because a shortage of primary care physicians put upward pressure on health-insurance premiums.
Both articles provide vivid reminders that the global industries upon which the Massachusetts economy is built are particularly sensitive to federal policy changes and budget decisions. And immigration issues will be child’s play compared to the potential fallout of changes to federal health care reform and Medicaid funding.
Should be an interesting spring.