Trump orders review of H-1B visas + A look at the program
Madison, Wis. — Turning back to the economic populism that helped drive his election campaign, President Donald Trump signed an order Tuesday he said should help American workers whose jobs are threatened by skilled immigrants.
At the headquarters of hand and power tool manufacturer Snap-on Inc., Trump signed an order that that asks the government to propose new rules and changes that will stop what he called abuses in a visa program used by U.S. technology companies. Dubbed "Buy American and Hire American," the directive follows a series of recent Trump reversals on economic policies.
"We are going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first," Trump declared, standing in front of an American flag fashioned out of wrenches.
Much like some prior orders, however, Trump's executive action Tuesday essentially looks for detailed reports rather than making decisive changes. In this case, the reports are about granting visas for highly skilled foreign workers and ensuring that government purchasing programs buy American made goods as required by law.
Trump chose to sign the directive at Snap-on Inc., based in Wisconsin, a state he narrowly carried in November on the strength of support from white, working-class voters. Trump currently has only a 41 percent approval rating in the state.
He campaigned last year on promises to overhaul U.S. trade and regulatory policy, but his executive orders on those issues reflect the administration bowing somewhat to the limits of presidential power. Also, he has recently reversed several populist promises, including standing up to China, which he contended was manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs, and eliminating the Export-Import Bank, which he billed as wasteful subsidy.
But Trump returned to Tuesday to the economic tough talk of his campaign, saying: "We're going to make some very big changes or we are going to get rid of NAFTA for once and for all," referring to the Clinton-era U.S. trade pact with Canada and Mexico.
In his new directive, the president is targeting the H-1B visa program, which the White House says undercuts U.S. workers by bringing in large numbers of cheaper, foreign workers and driving down wages. The tech industry has argued that the H-1B program is needed because it encourages students to stay in the U.S. after getting degrees in high-tech specialties — and because companies can't always find enough American workers with the skills they need.
The new order would direct U.S. agencies to propose rules to prevent immigration fraud and abuse in the program. They would also be asked to offer changes so that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid applicants.
The number of requests for H-1B visas declined this year by about 15 percent, or roughly 37,000 applications, but the total was still nearly 200,000, far more than the 85,000 limit.
Tuesday's order also seeks to strengthen requirements that American-made products be used in certain federal construction projects, as well as in various grant-funded transportation projects. The commerce secretary is to review how to close loopholes in existing rules and provide recommendations to the president within 220 days. The order also asks agencies to assess the use of waivers.
What is the H-1B Visa program?
Here's a look at how the H-1B visa program works:
- IS THIS A TECH VISA PROGRAM?
The H-1B program is open to a broad range of occupations, including architects, professors and even fashion models. It's meant for jobs requiring specialty skills that cannot be filled by a U.S. worker. Many of these jobs happen to be in tech. According to the Labor Department, the top three H-1B occupations are computer systems analysts, application software developers and computer programmers — and those three account for roughly half of the department's H-1B certifications.
The tech industry says that companies have trouble filling positions with American workers and must turn to other countries through this program. Supporters have sought to expand the number of visas allowed each year, something unlikely to happen.
- BY THE NUMBERS
Although the program is capped at 85,000 new H-1B visas each year, more than 100,000 workers are allowed in annually because of exemptions for university-related positions. Recipients can stay up to six years. Demand is usually higher than the cap, so the government holds an annual lottery. This year, the government received nearly 200,000 applications for the available spots in less than a week.
- WHAT ABOUT AMERICAN JOBS?
By law, companies are required to pay at least the prevailing wage for that occupation. In practice, critics say companies can pay less by classifying jobs at the lowest skill levels, even if the specific workers hired have more experience. Many of the overseas workers are willing to work for as little as $60,000 annually, far less than $100,000-plus salaries typically paid to U.S. technology workers.
As a result, many U.S. companies find it cheaper simply to contract out help desks, programming and other basic tasks to consulting companies such as Wipro, Infosys, HCL Technologies and Tata in India and IBM and Cognizant in the U.S. These consulting companies hire foreign workers, often from India, and contract them out to U.S. employers looking to save money. Tech workers losing their jobs sometimes have sometimes been required to train their foreign replacements to qualify for severance packages.
In some cases, companies must make a good faith effort to hire a U.S. worker before turning to an H-1B worker, but there are many exceptions to this requirement.
- TRUMP'S CARDS
The Trump administration can do a few things on its own.
A few weeks ago, the Trump administration issued a stern warning to U.S. companies that it would investigate and prosecute those who overlook qualified American workers for jobs. An official with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also circulated a memo intended to reserve approvals for computer programming to more senior positions. Although the memo doesn't have the force of law and is merely intended as guidance for employees reviewing individual cases, it could make it more difficult for entry-level workers to get approved.
Beyond that, the administration could scrap the current lottery approach and give priority to higher-paying jobs, thereby weeding out lower-paying, entry-level positions. Trump wants individual departments in his administration to come up with proposals.
- WHAT ABOUT CONGRESS?
One bill, proposed by Sens. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, would require companies seeking H-1B visas to first make a good-faith effort to hire Americans, a requirement that applies to only some companies under the current system. It would also give the Labor Department more power to investigate and sanction H-1B abuses and give "the best and brightest" foreign students studying in the U.S. priority in getting H-1B visas.
Reps. Darrell Issa and Scott Peters — a Republican and a Democrat, both from California— propose raising the minimum annual salary for certain exemptions to $100,000, from $60,000. The change could make even more companies subject to the requirement to try to hire U.S. workers first.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and former immigration lawyer whose district includes the heart of Silicon Valley, has proposed raising the minimum salary even higher, to $130,000. Her bill also would give priority to higher-paying jobs, while setting aside 20 percent of spots to smaller businesses, which might not be able to pay as much.
Source: The Associated Press
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