Donald Trump orders changes to H-1B visa program for skilled foreign workers

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a baby upon his arrival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday will order federal agencies to look at tightening a temporary visa program used to bring high-skilled foreign workers to the United States, as he tries to carry out his campaign pledges to put “America First.”

Trump will sign an executive order on enforcing and reviewing the H-1B visa, popular in the technology industry, on a visit to the headquarters of Snap-On Inc, a tool manufacturer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, senior administration officials said.

He will also use what the White House called the “Buy American and Hire American” order to seek changes in government procurement that would boost purchases of American products in federal contracts, with one aim being to help U.S. steelmakers.

The moves will show Trump once again using his power to issue executive orders to try to fulfill promises he made last year in his election campaign, in this case to reform U.S. immigration policies and encourage purchases of American products.

Senior officials gave few details on implementation of the order but Trump aides have expressed concern that most H-1B visas are awarded for lower-paid jobs at outsourcing firms, many based in India, which they say takes work away from Americans. They seek a more merit-based way to give the visas to highly-skilled workers.

As he nears the 100-day benchmark of his presidency, Trump still has no major legislative achievements. With his attempts to overhaul healthcare and tax law not bearing fruit so far in a Congress controlled by his fellow Republicans, Trump has leaned heavily on executive orders to seek changes to the U.S. economy.

The venue for Trump’s visit on Tuesday is a nod to his voter base in the manufacturing centers of the American heartland. Wisconsin unexpectedly voted for the Republican last year, partly due to his promises to bring back industrial jobs.

His order will call for “strict enforcement of all laws governing entry into the United States of labor from abroad for the stated purpose of creating higher wages and higher employment rates for workers in the United States,” a senior official said.

It will call on the departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State to crack down on what the official called “fraud and abuse” in the U.S. immigration system, in order to protect American workers.

Instead of directly ordering a change to the H-1B visa program, Trump is taking a more cautious route that will likely take some time to produce actual results. He will ask those federal departments to propose reforms to ensure those visas are awarded to the most skilled or highest paid applicant.


H-1B visas are intended for foreign nationals in occupations that generally require higher education, including science, engineering or computer programming. The government uses a lottery to award 65,000 visas every year and randomly distributes another 20,000 to graduate student workers.

Companies say they use the visas to recruit top talent. More than 15 percent of Facebook Inc’s U.S. employees in 2016 used a temporary work visa, according to a Reuters analysis of U.S. Labor Department filings.

Facebook, Microsoft Corp and Apple Inc were not immediately available for a comment.

Most H-1B visas are awarded to outsourcing firms, sparking criticism by skeptics who say those companies use the visas to fill lower-level information technology jobs. Critics say the lottery benefits outsourcing firms that flood the system with mass applications.

The senior official said that under the current system foreign workers are often brought in at less pay to replace American workers, “violating the principle of the program.”

Indian nationals are by far the largest group of recipients of the H-1B visas issued each year to new applicants.

NASSCOM, the Indian IT service industry’s main lobby group, said it supports efforts to root out any abuses occurring in the H-1B system, but said the idea that H-1B visa holders are cheap labor is inaccurate and a campaign to discredit the sector.

It warned that any onerous additional restrictions to the visa program would “hurt thousands of U.S. businesses and their efforts to be more competitive,” by hindering access to needed talent.

The Indian commerce ministry, which has been liaising with the United States on the visa issue, declined to comment. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Washington in February to be open minded on admitting skilled Indian workers.

India’s No. 2 IT Services firm, Infosys, has said it is ramping up work on on-site development centers in the United States to train local talent in an effort to address the visa regulation changes under consideration.

Infosys also warned last week that onerous changes to U.S. visa rules could affect its earnings.

Before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, his transition team discussed the possibility of scrapping the H-1B lottery and replacing it with a system to favor visa petitions for jobs that pay the highest salaries, in an effort to curb visas given to lower skilled tech workers.

“We hope the goal of President Trump’s executive order on the H-1B program is ‘mend it, don’t end it,’” Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation professional association, said in a statement.

He said replacing the H-1B lottery with a more merit-based system could advance the program’s goals of attracting people with advanced science and technology skills.

The number of H-1B visa applications for this year actually fell to 199,000 from 236,000 received for 2016, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Trump’s order will also ask federal agencies to look at how to get rid of loopholes in the government procurement process.

Specifically, the review will take into account whether waivers in free-trade agreements are leading to unfair trade by allowing foreign companies to undercut American companies in the global government procurement market.

“If it turns out America is a net loser because of those free-trade agreement waivers, which apply to almost 60 countries, these waivers may be promptly renegotiated or revoked,” the second official said.




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