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'Cutting Off Our Future': How Freeze On Visas For STEM Workers Will Affect Danforth Center

Aerial view of the Donald Danforth Plan Science Center
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is already running into issues hiring for specialized ag tech positions due to a recent executive order freezing work visas until the end of the year.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month freezing green cards and some temporary work visas for new immigrants through the end of the year.

The White House framed the move as a way of protecting workers who lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.

But Jim Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, said the move will do more harm than good for cities like St. Louis trying to grow high-tech industries.

“The initial impulse is to think they’re taking jobs away from people locally. That’s simply not the case, because the numbers of positions that we need to fill vastly outnumbers the qualified individuals we have to choose from locally and across the country,” he said. 

“We need to bring in people to fill these roles, and if we don't, it’s to our own detriment.”

More than 10% of the Danforth Center workforce holds visas, including H-1B visas for highly skilled tech workers and scientists.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Corinne Ruff spoke with Carrington about the visa freeze and likely effects on innovation and economic growth across the region.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Corinne Ruff: How do you imagine the visa freeze will impact the St. Louis economy?

Jim Carrington: H-1B visas are specifically geared toward workers with unusual talents — in our case, talented scientists in the ag tech area. If we want to see growth of our economy around ag tech, as it's happening around the Danforth Center, and we cut off a critical source of talented workers to fuel it, I don't know how you make up for that.

Ruff: This new order applies to people seeking new visas, at least for the end of the year. Is that hurting your ability to finalize contracts with new employees or extend employment? Or how else are you noticing the impact?

Carrington: We're noticing it in a couple of different ways. First of all, we do have active applicants who have applied but have not yet been approved. So those are at risk in the H-1B category. 

For the current visa holders at the Danforth Center, this has a bit of a terrorizing effect. If they see that H-1B applicants are being suppressed through the end of the year, I think they have a legitimate concern. What's next? Are they going to start revoking active visas? 

As far as welcoming of potential applicants to the Danforth Center who would need a visa, it clearly has a suppressing effect, and they will, in many cases choose to go elsewhere.

Ruff: What do you say to those like the president who claim this is a move to protect U.S. workers and jobs? Why rely on visas to fill these jobs? Why not hire local St. Louisans?

Carrington: Because we have more positions that we need to fill than we have local applicants. It's as simple as that. If we open up a position for say, a postdoctoral scientist, there are very few that will apply from St. Louis. The vast majority will be from across the U.S. or around the world.

Ruff: I wonder if this is an issue you're seeing other St. Louis businesses, academics and scientists come together and stand against? Is there some sort of coordinated effort to tackle this?

Carrington: There are coordinated efforts. There are scientific societies that are making very clear statements and that are making their position known. We at the Danforth Center have tried to educate our delegation in Washington, D.C., and express our concerns. We communicated the effect that this will have on us. Other organizations like the National Academy of Sciences have been very outspoken and strongly advocated for preserving a welcoming environment to talented high-tech and scientific workers from abroad.

Ruff: The Danforth Plant Science Center has played a major role in growing the biotech industry and expanding innovation in the St. Louis region. How does this visa freeze make it more challenging to keep doing that?

Carrington: Well, like I said, it is challenging if we have a growing high-tech community and in our case around the Danforth Center, a growing ag tech community. This community requires talented workers — it requires engineers, computer programmers, it requires scientists — and the supply of those scientists, engineers, computer technicians, computer scientists is from around the world. 

It is a misnomer to think that we have enough talent here in St. Louis. We don't. And I think you're hearing that from a number of others in the community, from the universities to the high-tech areas to companies like Centene. We simply don't have enough local talent, and we need to bring the talent to St. Louis. If we don't do it, if we cut ourselves off at the knees, we're cutting off our future.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.