Donald Trump to overhaul H-1B visa program that admits foreign workers
In a bid to court working class voters, Donald Trump will sign an executive order on Tuesday to revamp a temporary visa programme used to bring foreign workers to fill jobs in the US.
The president will use a visit to a manufacturing company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a crucial state he snatched from Hillary Clinton in the election, to promote his latest “Buy America Hire America” offensive.
This includes an attempt to redress alleged abuses in the H-1B visas, which are used largely by the tech industry, and on which has Trump shifted position several times during the election campaign.
H-1B visas admit 65,000 workers and another 20,000 graduate student workers each year. Most of the visas are awarded to outsourcing firms, which critics say exploit loopholes to fill lower-level IT jobs with foreign workers, often at lower pay. The White House intends “a total transformation” of the programme from a lottery to a merit-based system, a senior administration official said.
Trump’s executive order will call on government departments to introduce reforms to ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the “most skilled or highest paid applicants”, the official told reporters.
“Right now H-1B visas are awarded by random lottery and many of you will be surprised to know that about 80% of H-1B workers are paid less than the median wage in their fields. Only 5% to 6%, depending on the year, of H-1B workers command the highest wage tier recognised by the Department of Labor.”
The official added: “The result is that workers are often brought in well below market rates to replace American workers, violating the principle of the programme, which is supposed to be a means for bringing in skilled labour. Instead, you’re a lot of times bringing in workers that are less skilled and lower paid than the workers they’re replacing.”
Perhaps the most notorious case cited during the campaign was at the Walt Disney Company in Florida, where American technology workers claimed they were laid off and forced to train foreign replacements. A judge dismissed a lawsuit that accused Disney of conspiring with outsourcing companies to violate visa laws.
The senior administration official said: “If you change that current system that awards visas randomly, without regard for skill or wage, to a skills-based awarding, it makes it extremely difficult to use the visa to replace or undercut American workers … It’s a very elegant way of solving very systemic problems in the H-1B guest worker visa.”
He added: “I could foresee scenarios, which I won’t get into now, where you just have a whole different way of looking at immigration. This is a transitional step to get towards a more skills-based and merit-based immigration system.”
The executive order will also call for the “strict enforcement” of laws governing entry to the US of labour from overseas, with a view to creating higher wages and employment rates for US workers.
The order will also call on government departments to “take prompt action to crack down on fraud and abuse” in the immigration system, a senior administration official said.
There was a tense moment at Monday’s off-camera briefing when a reporter asked about Trump’s own hiring of temporary foreign guest workers at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and other Trump properties. The official replied: “I think it’s important to understand that the job of the president of the United States is to set policy for federal government so any questions about a private company’s practices is not something I’m even able to speak to or answer.
“But I think during the campaign the president addressed this at length. I’m frankly surprised that you didn’t brief yourself before coming here … I don’t know if you’re asking because you don’t know or you’re pretending you don’t know.”
Reforming the distribution of H-1B visas was reportedly discussed during the presidential transition with chief executives of tech companies at Trump Tower in New York. Attorney general Jeff Sessions has been a long-time critic.