Is Boston’s innovation economy doomed to fail?

Boston’s burgeoning tech sector is dependent on a declining number of highly skilled foreign worker visas. Is it time to start panicking?

Photo by Phive2015 / Getty Images

“March Madness “is upon us, and the odds are not in our favor. I’m not talking about college basketball, mind you, but the term immigration lawyers use to refer to the annual race. to complete clients’ work visa applications by the April 1 deadline. This year, all Bostonians, even those born within city limits, have reason to be concerned as recently enacted visa restrictions make it increasingly difficult for local tech and biotech companies to hire the highly skilled foreign STEM workers needed to keep our global innovation economy hitting the skates.

For years there have been many doors through which an immigrant could enter the local STEM workforce, but President Donald Trump’s administration is now threatening that pipeline at many points along the way. Student visas, for example, have been increasingly restricted, potentially eliminating the next generation of innovators who want to stay and start businesses here. The president also tried to cut back on elective practical training, which allows hundreds of thousands of international students and graduates across the country to work with U.S. companies for up to three years after graduation. More severely, the administration has started to decline visa applications from highly skilled workers, known as H1-B visas, at a faster rate. In 2019, for example, 24% of the first H1-B visa applications were rejected, up from 10% in 2016.

Why is this important? On the one hand, this pipeline is arguably the lifeblood of our booming economy. The science and technology sectors are the main job creators in our region, constituting Boston’s second-largest industry, and more than a quarter of the STEM workers that power it are immigrants. “Massachusetts is the best place in the world for the life sciences industry,” said Bob Coughlin, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. “And it didn’t just happen because of our local talent.”

Immigrants not only occupy thousands of jobs in our technology and biotechnology companies, but they also create them. A whopping 61% of local startups, including a handful of “unicorns” valued at over $ 1 billion, have at least one immigrant among their founders. And according to Stéphane Bancel, CEO of the unicorn biotech Moderna, who, like a quarter of its employees, is himself an immigrant, the increased difficulty of obtaining work visas is also delaying the development of potentially life-saving drugs. “The kind of science that we do in this city is difficult because it has never been done before,” he says. “We need the best of the best, and sometimes for very specific niche biology skills, we just can’t find the talent in the United States.”

Even though his administration restricts foreign worker visas, Trump has acknowledged that restricting the channels for skilled immigrants to work in the United States is bad for business. “[Companies] want to hire smart people. And these people are being kicked out of the country. We can’t do this, ”he said recently in an interview.

To keep Boston’s economy going, local businesses must keep their word. If Trump doesn’t work out, Susan Cohen, founding president of Mintz’s Immigration Practice, suggests there may be another way to get the government’s attention: litigation. After all, she said, if employers drastically increased their challenges to visa denials in court, the administration might be persuaded to change its approach.

Change cannot happen quickly enough. Many American companies are expanding their operations in countries like Canada, where international student enrollments are skyrocketing and hiring a non-native is a much simpler process. If something doesn’t change soon, we may one day find that Kendall Square has moved north to Toronto and our local economy has definitely moved south.

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