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Visa Restrictions Unwelcome News for Firms in Need of AI Workers

An executive order that extends visa restrictions could exacerbate the U.S. shortage in skilled AI workers.

A newly released executive order on worker visas from President Donald Trump is particularly bad news for artificial intelligence-focused companies and research organizations already in need of skilled AI workers.

The executive order, released on June 22, extends the existing ban on several immigrant work visas through the end of 2020, and the ban could be extended “as necessary.” However, with new visas generally issued in October, the effect of this order on visa restrictions will be felt well into next year.

The order specifically targets H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas, and prohibits immigrants currently outside the United States from applying for them. The administration will also look at immigrants who are currently inside the country with H-1B status or are seeking EB-2 or EB-3 green cards to determine if they are a “disadvantage” to American workers.

The impact for the tech industry — including the machine learning, artificial intelligence and data science sectors — could be significant. One visa in particular, the H-1B, is often issued to people with expertise in artificial intelligence, a field with a shortage of American-trained experts.

Ongoing Visa Concerns

Several of the affected visas are important to America’s tech sector. Interns, researchers, trainees and specialists often apply for J-1 visas. This visa type is often associated with au pairs, but it promotes cross-cultural exchange generally, not only for childcare. L-1 visas are often a means for international startups to expand to the United States, and many large tech companies use L-1A and L-1B visas to bring over skilled professionals from their overseas offices.

But H-1B visas are of particular importance to companies and organizations focused on AI. More than a third of H-1B holders have an AI-related degree, according to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

The argument put forward by the Trump administration for the restrictions on these visas is that denying them will open up jobs for Americans during a difficult economic period. However, many of the international hires who receive these visas have expertise in sectors like AI, where American workers cannot keep up with the demand for specialized skills. Workers like these, who come from a variety of countries but primarily India and China, typically get an H-1B visa — one of those now restricted.

As things currently stand, most of the AI experts in the U.S. are not American-born. According to a recent analysis from MacroPolo, more than two-thirds of AI researchers with jobs at American institutions got their undergraduate degrees outside the United States.

As well, international students in AI-related graduate programs are important to educational institutions across the country — and are often the future employees of American companies. The same MacroPolo analysis found that 67% of master’s students and 64% of doctoral students in AI-related programs are from outside the U.S. About 80% of those Ph.D. students remain in the United States in the five years following graduation.

However, even with those international scholars and employees, there is not enough AI talent in the United States to meet demand. A majority of companies have said, in multiple surveys, that they are investing in AI — and the shortage of AI workers with the skills needed to move those investments forward or make them worthwhile is also well-documented.

The tech industry has spoken up about Trump’s immigration policies before. When the president signed an executive order on an AI strategy, industry leaders such as Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Ian Goodfellow, director of machine learning at Apple, argued that such a strategy required changes to visa restrictions that would hamper the arrival of AI experts.

Because many American embassies are closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible that fewer visas would have been issued this year no matter what — applicants can’t go to the embassies for applications and interviews if they are not open.

But there is no guarantee that these restrictions will not continue into 2021, which would mean the effects of them for American organizations and international workers could continue into 2022.

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