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Duolingo’s CEO says Trump’s visa ban could force him to enlist in Canada

Last month, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending guest visa visas, such as the H-1B, which is widely used by technology companies to attract talent from other countries without having to go through the traditional immigration process. Competition for visas has been high since the US spends 85,000 a year and means that the employment status of a foreign worker influences his immigration status. Silicon Valley technology companies have protested administration policies; Twitter called the policy “Harmful,” and Apple CEO Tim Cook said he was “deeply disappointed” by the ban.

But it’s not just big companies affected by changes. Duolingo, the Pittsburgh language learning app company, is in a difficult position due to the Trump administration’s confusing and unpredictable immigration movements. Duolingo became Pittsburgh’s first venture capital-backed $ 1 billion startup after an investment of $ 30 million last year from the capital arm of Alphabet’s CapitalG. It is one of the hundreds of startups extracted from Carnegie Mellon University.

Luis von Ahn, CEO and co-founder of Duolingo, 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 policy against (extremely qualified) immigration continues, we will be forced to move jobs (and inspiration) to Toronto.”

Duolingo isn’t the only company to speak out about how current U.S. immigration policy will affect recruitment. Aaron Levie, CEO of cloud computing company Box, tweeted last month: “If you limit immigration, the jobs are still being created, just somewhere else. And later on down the road, when those individuals make the next Google, it won’t be there. And Tobias Lutke, CEO of Ottawa-based Shopify tweeted about the benefits of moving north, saying the company was hiring people around the world. “If going to the US is your main goal, you can still go south after the H-1B rules change. But Canada is great. Give it a try. “

To be clear, von Ahn says he has no plans to relocate the company from Pittsburgh, a city with a relatively low cost of living that Duolingo has used as a selling point to try to lure talent out of Silicon Valley. In 2018, the company has one billboard at Highway 101 in San Francisco with the text “Own a house. Work in the tech. Go to Pittsburgh. ‘

“If this position persists against immigrants, we will have to move jobs to other countries,” said von Ahn in an interview with The edge. “This is not just a matter of hiring and growing more people – it is also a matter of caring for and protecting the workers we have today, many of whom are facing uncertainty, fear and anxiety around their ability to continue to work in and contribute to this country. “

President Trump made his position on immigrants and immigration policy clear before even taking office derogatory comments about Mexicans and his continued 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 enforcement order that halted immigration from seven countries in the Middle East. He is shocked against sanctuary cities, and under his control has the US Border Patrol thousands of refugeesincluding children. In April he issued an executive order stop issuing green cards, conceived as an attempt to stop the flow of coronavirus to the US.

And if uncertainty about US immigration policy persists, von Ahn predicts that the US will continue to see trends where foreign workers can choose to work in countries with more favorable immigration policies.

“In the case of Duolingo, we are proud to have a world-class workforce from all over the world. About 20 percent of our staff have an H-1B or other work visa, and if not for the H-1B and other visa programs, many of these functions would not be fulfilled. ”

According to federal data, Duolingo won petitions for four H-1B visas in 2016, but the number of new petitions has declined in recent years. The company declined to offer specific numbers, but a spokesperson confirmed that about 20 percent of Duolingo’s more than 300 employees have some sort of visa or work permit.

Von Ahn came to the United States at age 17 to attend Duke University, where he eventually obtained a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University. He pioneered CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA while at CMU, eventually selling the system to Google. He also invented a game that teaches computers to recognize what is in a photo, which is also sold to Google (and renamed Google Image Labeler).

But von Ahn is probably best known for founding Duolingo, whose mission is to make quality education free and accessible. However, he’s not sure if he could have built a company like Duolingo in the US if he started it in 2018 instead of 2011, for example. “This current policy means a bleak outlook on the future of entrepreneurship in the US. ”

Von Ahn says he is concerned about the long-term effects that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policy may have even after Trump resigns. “One of my major concerns is that the sentiment towards immigrants that we have seen in the current government sends a signal that international students and immigrants are not welcome in the US, and I think this could have a lasting impact.”

He pointed to the decline international student enrollment in US universities in the past three years and said Duolingo’s own statistics, including data from international students who received the Duolingo English test, show an increasing preference for universities outside the US.

The problem is that the long-term effects will be delayed and most Americans won’t see it right away. It will take a decade or more, but we’ll see when the next big science and technology companies are built outside the US, ”said von Ahn.

Trump is not the only critic of the H-1B program and figures across the political spectrum have called for the program to be reformed. Critics say in particular that the pool of immigrant immigrant workers allows this employers to pay low wages, essentially using work authorization as a substitute for higher wages. An analysis from 2017 by The edge found that in 2016, six times more H-1B visas were issued to employees at outsourcing companies than technology companies in Silicon Valley.

Still, von Ahn says that Duolingo simply couldn’t fulfill many roles without turning to guest workers. “We just can’t fill the number of roles we need with only American workers,” he says. “These are high-tech positions in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science and there simply aren’t enough candidates if we limit the candidate pool to US citizens.”

During the 2016 election, Trump campaigned against the use of H-1B visas, called it “a cheap labor program” and promised to add a requirement to hire American workers first. Its June proclamation bans those who enter visa for migrant workers, including H-1B visas, into the United States until December 31, claiming that it “would pose a significant threat to employment for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disturbances caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. ”

Von Ahn said he looks ahead that it is possible to undo some of the damage the US reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants has suffered. “I hope it is not too late to undo much of the harmful, anti-immigrant policies recently introduced,” he said. “Whether this gives foreign students and workers confidence that they will be welcome back in the US remains to be seen.”