Colorado tech executive urges opposition to U.S. immigration changes

SendGrid CEO Sameer Dholakia is joining other leaders of technology companies opposing changes to U.S. immigration rules under U.S. President Donald Trump.

The loudest industry reaction against the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration has come from tech, an industry that identifies immigrants to the U.S. as a key source of innovation.

“This is a reaction to a change in philosophy that we believe runs against the grain of the country. It’s a moral issue,” Dholakia said.

Himself the son of an immigrant, Dholakia wants Denver-based SendGrid Inc.and Colorado tech companies to join the voices of opposing tighter immigration rules, and not just for economic reasons.

Trump signed an order Jan. 27 suspending U.S. refugee admissions for four months and barring entry for 90 days to citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, with some exceptions.

Sunday, 97 tech companies filed a legal brief in a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals court case in San Francisco that stopped the administration’s refugee policy from being applied. The companies — which include Amazon, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Uber — argue the order violates more than 50 years of U.S. law barring ethnic or religious discrimination in visa policy.

There’s concern the Trump administration will soon move to limit the use of H-1B visas that let 65,000 highly-skilled immigrants annually come work for U.S. companies.

Tech industry leaders have pushed for years to increase the annual cap on H-1B visas, which are so popular they are snapped up in hours and winners of them are decided by lottery.

About 5 percent of SendGrid’s 320-employee workforce are immigrants, about a half-dozen hold H-1B visas, the company says.

SendGrid is in the midst of hiring hundreds of new employees to its new Denver headquarters. Roughly 15 percent of applicants for jobs at SendGrid apply needing some kind of visa sponsorship if they were hired, the company says.

Dholakia lives in California and works from SendGrid’s San Francisco Bay-area office.

Immigrants aren’t a source of cheaper labor, but are sought after to have access to the best talent and a diversity of ideas, he said. Tightening limits on H1-B visas would shrink the job candidate pool and could limit a company’s ability to find the best workers, SendGrid says.

“It really is about attracting the best and brightest in the world. That’s the starting point, the assumption,” he said.

The most talented employees are disproportionate sources of innovation, Dholakia said, which is why the industry is reacting so strongly even though immigrants may only make up a small percentage of any given company’s workforce.

U.S. companies fear that if they don’t hire a talented immigrant, a foreign company will, or the immigrant will start companies of their own outside the United States.

“You can’t even quantify it. People will either innovate and come up with the next new idea or they won’t,” he said. “It is a highly competitive market, and some of the best engineers in the world happen not to have been born on this soil.”

The administration’s moves offend Dholakia personally, too.

Dholakia’s father immigrated from India after college to attend graduate school in Massachusetts, then the epicenter of innovation in textiles, where he earned degrees in those fields, stayed in the U.S. and patented technology while working for U.S. companies.

The U.S.’s support for allowing his father in meant U.S. companies benefited directly, and then again through his children who are U.S. citizens, Dholakia said.

“I would not be here leading this company if we had implemented a policy of not letting people like him come to our country,” he said.

Dholakia worries the country’s leadership in tech would decline in 10 or 15 years if the best foreign-born talents stop coming.

“The best and the brightest in the world want to bring their talents to our country and our companies, and we want to say ‘no’ to them? It’s so illogical,” he said.

Greg Avery covers tech, telecom, aerospace, bioscience and media for the Denver Business Journal and compiles the weekly “TechFlash” email newsletter. Phone: 303-803-9222.