On July 6, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a rule change that would have barred international students from staying in the country if their classes moved entirely online due to the coronavirus. Shortly later, MIT and Harvard University sued the agency and the Department of Homeland Security in federal court, seeking to prevent the government from enforcing the policy.
Tech companies joined the fight a few days later. In an amicus brief supporting MIT and Harvard’s case, 19 tech organizations and companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, argued that they would be “harmed substantially” if international students were forced to leave the United States. The rule change was ultimately rescinded.
A closer look at Big Tech’s reliance on foreign workers and the demographics of STEM students in the U.S. reveals why tech companies were quick to oppose the change. Not only do foreign workers continuously support tech companies, but the number of international students in master’s and doctorate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs has grown so much in recent years that they now earn more than half of all degrees conferred.
Sponsoring international technical workers has been integral to the growth of top tech companies. The most well-known way companies hire foreign workers is the H1-B visa, a three-year work visa for a “specialty occupation” that requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Since 2006, the cap for the available number of H1-B visas has been set to 85,000: 65,000 for those with at least a bachelor’s degree and an additional 20,000 reserved for applicants with at least a master’s degree from an American university. While there are various exceptions, such as employees at universities or nonprofit organizations, private companies are subject to the cap. This cap has made the H1-B visa petition process increasingly competitive; the quota has been filled within four days for the past six years.