WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is directing federal agencies to review a visa program used by companies to hire high-skilled foreign workers in the U.S.
Mr. Trump announced the initiative, dubbed “Buy American, Hire American,” Tuesday afternoon at the headquarters of tool manufacturer Snap-on (SNA) in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Right now, H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery and that’s wrong,” he said. “Instead, they should be given to [the] most skilled and highest-paid applicants, and they should never, ever be used to replace Americans.”
Flanked by Snap-on workers, members of his administration and local leaders, the president followed his remarks by signing an executive order requiring the government to examine the visa program.
The White House says the H-1B visa program undercuts American workers by bringing in large numbers of cheaper, foreign workers, 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 they can’t always find enough American workers with the skills they need.
“We hope the goal of President Trump’s executive order on the H-1B program is ‘mend it, don’t end it,’ said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that is lobbying in favor of the visas, in a statement. “Reforming the program could help improve its effectiveness in attracting the world’s best and brightest.”
The order directs 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,” said administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity despite the president’s frequent criticism of the use of anonymous sources.
The officials said the order also seeks to strengthen requirements that American-made products be used in certain federal construction projects, as well as in various federal transportation grant-funded projects. The commerce secretary will review how to close loopholes in existing rules and provide recommendations to the president.
The order specifically asks the secretary to review waivers of these rules in free-trade agreements. The waivers could be renegotiated or revoked if they are not benefiting the United States.
Trump’s visit to Wisconsin takes him to the congressional district of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who didn’t join the president because he’s on a congressional trip visiting NATO countries.
Trump campaigned on populist promises to stand up to China, which he claimed was manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs, and to eliminate the Export-Import bank, which he billed as wasteful subsidy. In a series of interviews last week, Trump reversed himself on both positions
And while he has long pledged to support American goods and workers, his own business record is mixed. Many Trump-branded products, like clothing, are made overseas. And his businesses have hired foreign workers, including at his Palm Beach club Mar-a-Lago.
During his campaign, Trump said at one point that he supported high-skilled visas, then opposed them. At one debate, he said: “It’s very bad for our workers and it’s unfair for our workers. And we should end it.”
The officials said potential changes could be administrative or legislative and could include higher fees for the visas, changing the wage scale for the program or other initiatives.
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.
Critics say the program has been hijacked by staffing companies that use the visas to recruit foreigners - often from India - who will work for less than Americans. The staffing companies then sell their services to corporate clients who use them to outsource tech work.
Employers, such as Walt Disney World and the University of California in San Francisco, have laid off tech employees and replaced them with H-1B visa holders. The U.S. workers are sometimes asked to train their replacements to qualify for severance packages.
Ronil Hira, a professor in public policy at Howard University and a critic of the H-1B program, said Trump’s planned order is “better than nothing.” But he added, “It’s not as aggressive as it needs to be.”
Trump has traveled to promote his agenda less than his recent predecessors. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump wanted to visit “a company that builds American-made tools with American workers.”
Trump carried Wisconsin in November by nearly 23,000 votes — less than 1 percentage point — making him the first Republican to win the state since 1984. He campaigned on the promise of returning manufacturing jobs that have been lost in Upper Midwest states.
Snap-on makes hand and power tools, diagnostics software, information and management systems, and shop equipment for use in various industries, including agriculture, the military and aviation. It has eight manufacturing sites in North America and employs about 11,000 people worldwide.
Mr. Trump’s visit to Kenosha also brought hundreds of protestors, who gathered outside of Snap-on to demand that he release his tax returns and who criticized some of his policies, including a plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico.