After studying chemical engineering in Canada for four years, Ali Nikdel was eager to start a new life in the United States. He was looking forward to joining the vibrant US engineering community and the 35-year-old already had a job offer lined up.
But just months before his graduation, Nikdel, an Iranian, abandoned his plan. Why? The executive order issued by President Donald Trump last week that banned citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, Iran included, from entering the US for at least the next three months.
“I won’t consider it even after they lift the ban,” said Nikdel, a postgraduate candidate at the University of Waterloo, about relocating to the US. “I don’t feel secure [living] in a country [which] reminds me of populist policies I was suffering in Iran.”
Educational experts say that the ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen could jeopardise America’s standing as the top destination for the world’s best students.
Like Nikdel, students and skilled workers who long considered America the place to be, are instead reconsidering their options. For many of these disillusioned souls, Asia offers an attractive alternative.
Those looking for tech-industry work could join an increasing crop of expatriates heading to Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, lured by affordable costs of living and fast-growing tech communities. Others may favour countries like China and Singapore, where governments are keen to attract foreign talent and build world-class tech hubs.
Singapore remains open to foreign talent despite occasional unease among locals over the influx of immigrants. In China, the government has offered supportive policies such as tax breaks to foreign talent, though expats may face language barriers in the Mandarin-speaking country.
Foreign talent could help China in its goal of becoming more self-sufficient in the hardware market. The country has been raising its profile in the tech industry with the development of “home grown” computer chips in a bid to become less dependent on tech imports. Qualcomm has already formed a joint venture with the investment arm of the provincial government in Guizhou (貴州) to develop server CPU chips for the Chinese market; other firms are attempting to do the same.
“The ban is creating a lot of confusion and fear, both for people in the United States and outside,” said Reaz Jafri, the head of immigration at the New York office of international law firm Withers.
“Right now, it is only seven countries. But the sense, or the fear, is that the ban will be expanded to other predominantly Muslim countries. People are expecting that, and making decisions as if they may not be able to come here,” Jafri said.
Analysts say the US tech industry, where many successful start-ups are founded or run by immigrants, is particularly vulnerable.
During the signing ceremony of the executive order – which also suspends the entry of all refugees for 120 days – Trump touted the order as a way to establish “new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America”.
But some of the world’s best technology professionals come from countries that the president considers a threat to America’s national security. Salar Kamangar, a senior executive of Google, was born in Iran. So was Ali Rowghani, the former chief operating officer of Twitter. And Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was the son of a Syrian refugee.
US technology companies, including Facebook, Netflix, Airbnb, and Google, have all denounced the ban. A Google spokesperson told This Week in Asia: “We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the US.”
So far, at least 187 employees of Google have been affected, and about 80 at Microsoft, USA Today reported. Across Silicon Valley, thousands of Muslim workers were living in fear, said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay area office of the civil rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations.
And the fear is spreading beyond the Muslim communities. “It is having a chilling effect on all immigrants, not only from the Middle East and North Africa but also from other nations such as Great Britain and China,” said Sophie Alcorn, founding attorney of California’s Alcorn Immigration Law firm which specialises in bringing foreign talent to Silicon Valley.
“It seems like everybody from every country who is an immigrant is scared right now,” Alcorn said. “This was so arbitrary. It feels like Trump could do anything next.”
In his inaugural speech last month, Trump said his country would “follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American”.
Analysts say there is a high expectation that the Trump administration will also restrict the H-1B non-immigrant visa programme, the most common way foreign workers with in-demand skills can go to America to work. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, nominated to be the next US attorney general, wants to lower the cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 50,000 a year.
Adam Ghahramani, an Iranian-American tech entrepreneur in New York City, said restrictions under the immigration ban would discourage promising Muslim students from going to the US. Even before the latest restrictions, Ghahramani said the arduous US visa process scared away many Iranian students, including three of his younger cousins.
“One ended up in Hungary, the other India, and the third Turkey,” he said. “It’s always been very difficult for the best Iranian students and professionals to study or work in the US. Trump’s order only makes it worse.”
Ghahramani said Muslim students would prioritise countries that had established universities, English-speaking cultures and Muslim-friendly atmospheres.
Jafri said that some of his clients had cancelled plans to set up companies and invest in the US, because “they know they will not be issued a visa to come here”.
The ban has even made established Muslim talent think twice about whether to stay in America. Jafri said that shortly after Trump’s immigration ban was imposed, he received a call from an Iranian billionaire entrepreneur who wanted to relocate from Silicon Valley due to concerns about the “hostile climate” in the US.
It is these same concerns that made Nikdel, the Iranian engineer, give up his “American Dream”. When Trump announced the ban, Nikdel was in St. Louis, Missouri, for a research partnership programme.
“I heard this news on CNN while talking with my American host,” Nikdel recalled. “We both stopped talking for a while and were shocked.”
Nikdel does not want to move to the US anymore, and neither do his colleagues. “Some of my Iranian friends thought about moving to the US, but now they are firm that they want to stay in Canada,” he said. ■