Last month, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending guest worker visas, like the H-1B, which is widely used by tech companies to attract talent from other countries without needing to go through the traditional immigration process. Competition for the visas is high since the US only issues 85,000 per year and means a foreign worker’s employment status affects their immigration status. Tech companies in Silicon Valley have protested the administration’s policies; Twitter called the policy “damaging,” and Apple CEO Tim Cook said he was “deeply disappointed” by the ban.
But it’s not just huge companies that would be affected by any changes. Duolingo, the language learning app company based in Pittsburgh, has been put in a difficult position by the Trump administration’s confusing and unpredictable immigration moves. Duolingo became Pittsburgh’s first $1 billion venture capital-funded startup after a $30 million investment from Alphabet’s CapitalG investment arm last year. It’s one of hundreds of startups spun out of Carnegie Mellon University.
Luis von Ahn, Duolingo CEO and co-founder, who is himself an immigrant from Guatemala, says the Trump administration’s policies will hinder its ability to scout and hire talent. Von Ahn tweeted earlier this month that “if the US policies against (extremely qualified) immigration continue, we’ll be forced to move jobs (and inspiration) to Toronto.”
Duolingo isn’t the only company speaking out about how current US immigration policies will affect recruiting. Aaron Levie, CEO of cloud computing company Box, tweeted last month: “When you restrict immigration, the jobs still get created, just somewhere else. And later down the road, when those individuals create the next Google, it won’t be here.” And Tobias Lutke, CEO of Ottawa-based Shopify tweeted about the benefits of moving north, saying the company was hiring all over the world. “If getting to the U.S. is your main objective you can still move on south after the H-1B rules change. But Canada is awesome. Give it a try.”
To be clear, von Ahn says he does not plan to move the company out of Pittsburgh, a city with a relatively low cost of living that Duolingo has used as a selling point to try to coax talent away from Silicon Valley. In 2018, the company erected a billboard off Highway 101 in San Francisco that read “Own a home. Work in tech. Move to Pittsburgh.”
I'm proud that @duolingo, the most valuable startup in PA, is seen as an inspiration for Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, if the US policies against (extremely qualified) immigration continue, we'll be forced to move jobs (and inspiration) to Toronto @SenToomey @SenBobCasey @billpeduto— Luis von Ahn (@LuisvonAhn) July 6, 2020
“If this stance against immigrants continues, we will have to shift jobs to other countries,” von Ahn said in an interview with The Verge. “This is not just a matter of being able to hire more people and grow — this is also a matter of being able to take care of and protect the employees we have today, many of whom are facing uncertainty, anxiety, and fear around their ability to remain working in and contributing to this country.”
President Trump made his stance on immigrants and immigration policy clear before he even took office, with his derogatory comments about Mexicans and his ongoing fixation on building a wall along the US-Mexico border. One of his first actions after taking office in January 2017 was to issue an executive order halting immigration from seven Middle Eastern countries. He’s railed against sanctuary cities, and under his watch, the US Border Patrol has detained thousands of refugees, including children. In April, he issued an executive order to stop issuing green cards, couched as an attempt to stem the flow of coronavirus into the US.
And if uncertainty around US immigration policies persists, von Ahn predicts the US will continue to see trends where foreign workers may choose to work in countries with more favorable immigration policies.
“In Duolingo’s case, we pride ourselves on having a world-class employee base that comes from all over the world. About 20 percent of our staff is on an H-1B or other work visa, and if not for the H-1B and other visa programs, many of these positions would be unfilled.”
Federal records show Duolingo won petitions for four H-1B visas in 2016, but the rate of new petitions has declined in recent years. The company declined to offer specific numbers, but a spokesperson confirmed about 20 percent of Duolingo’s 300-plus employees are on some type of visa or work authorization.
Von Ahn came to the US when he was 17 to attend Duke University, eventually pursuing a PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. He did pioneering work on CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA while at CMU, eventually selling the system to Google. He also invented a game that teaches computers how to recognize what’s in a photo, which also sold to Google (and was renamed the Google Image Labeler).
But von Ahn is probably best known for founding Duolingo, which has a mission of making high-quality education free and accessible. However, he’s not sure he would have been able to build a company like Duolingo in the US if he had started it in, say, 2018 instead of 2011. “These current policies signify a bleak outlook for the future of entrepreneurship in the US.”
Von Ahn says he’s worried about the long-term effects the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies may have even after Trump has left office. “One of my biggest concerns is that the anti-immigrant sentiment we’ve seen with the current administration is sending a signal that international students and immigrants are not welcome in the US, and I believe this could have a lasting impact.”
He pointed to the declining international student enrollment at US universities over the last three years and said Duolingo’s own metrics, including data from international students who take the Duolingo English Test, show an increasing preference for universities outside the US.
“The problem is the long-term impacts will be delayed and most Americans won’t see it right away. It will take a decade or more, but we’ll see it when the next great science and technology companies are built outside of the US,” von Ahn said.
Trump isn’t the only critic of the H-1B program, and figures from across the political spectrum have been calling for reforms of the program. In particular, critics say the pool of guest workers with a precarious immigration status allows employers to pay low wages, essentially using work authorization as a substitute for higher pay. A 2017 analysis by The Verge found that, in 2016, six times more H-1B visas were granted to workers at outsourcing companies than to tech firms in Silicon Valley.
Still, von Ahn says Duolingo simply couldn’t fill many roles without turning to guest workers. “We simply cannot fill the number of roles we need with only American workers,” he says. “These are high-tech positions in fields like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science and there are simply not enough candidates if we limit the applicant pool to US citizens.”
During the 2016 election, Trump campaigned against the use of H-1B visas, calling it “a cheap labor program” and promising to add a requirement to hire American workers first. His June proclamation bars those on guest worker visas, including H-1B visas, from entering the US until December 31st, claiming it would pose “a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Von Ahn said looking ahead, he thinks it may be possible to undo some of the damage that’s been done to the US’s reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants. “I am hopeful that it is not too late to reverse many of the damaging, anti-immigrant policies that have recently been put into place,” he said. “Whether this gives foreign students and workers confidence that they are once again welcome in the US remains to be seen.”