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Trump to overhaul visa program for high-skilled workers

18 Apr

By Jonathan Easley

President Trump will sign an executive order on Tuesday that aims to overhaul the H1-B visa program used by tech companies to bring high-skilled workers to the U.S.

Trump will travel to a manufacturing plant in Kenosha, Wis., to sign the order, which the administration says will make it more difficult for U.S. companies to look overseas for workers to fill middle-income jobs.

At a background briefing with reporters, senior administration officials described the current H1-B visa program as a lottery system that indiscriminately hands out work visas to contracting firms that recruit low-skilled, low-wage workers to replace working-class domestic laborers.

They say a new system is needed to ensure that the program returns to its original purpose of bringing in high-skilled, high-paid workers to fill more specialized or technical roles.

Trump campaigned heavily on the issue, at times bringing workers he described as victims of the system on stage with him.

Tuesday’s executive order won’t make immediate changes to the system, but will direct the Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State departments to undertake a wholesale review of the H1-B visa program and to put forth recommendations that can be achieved administratively or through legislation.

That could mean adjusting the wage scale the government uses to assess applicants, giving preference to workers with advanced degrees, or taking “a more vigorous stance” in enforcing violations of the program in an effort to root out fraud and abuse.

One senior administration official described “abuse” of the program as any company that “brings in a worker not because you need their skill or talent, but for the purpose of undercutting the American worker” by seeking out cheap foreign labor.

The executive order is not expected to address the number of visas that are given out annually.

Rather, it is intended to raise the qualifying criteria for applicants so that only top earners with specific skill sets are considered. An administration official claimed that the “lion’s share” of the visas are presently used for “entry-level positions.”

“We’ve never had a systematic review like this,” the official said. “These steps are broadly supported by American workers would bring these programs into compliance with their original intent. H1-B was intended to be a skilled worker program but most those using it are paid less than American workers in their field.”

The Trump administration says it believes the order will be supported by labor unions, although it will likely be met with opposition from the tech sector, which has used the H1-B program to boost its workforce.

Tech leaders and advocacy groups have long called for expanding the program, saying it’s necessary for hard-to-fill and highly specialized software and engineering positions.

The administration argued Monday that the program has become an end-around to flood the market with cheaper, unspecialized foreign laborers willing to work for below-market wages.

“The current system awards visas randomly with no regard to skill or wage,” the official said. “This will make it tougher to undercut American workers because they will no longer be replaced by workers making beneath the market wage.”

A second part of the executive order will direct federal agencies to prioritize American firms when rewarding federal contracts.

Agencies will be told to conduct assessments to root out “unfair trade practices used to steal government contracts from domestic workers and manufacturers” in the $4 billion global procurement market.

The agencies are being told to reexamine how they grant waivers to award federal contractors to low-bidding foreign manufacturers.

And they’ll be reviewing agreements whereby the U.S. grants foreign suppliers contracts in exchange for reciprocal access to federal contracts abroad. An administration official said those agreements have failed to net the U.S. its fair share in the global procurements market.

“There will be an immediate culture change across these agencies,” a senior administration official said. “Buying American is the Trump administration’s highest priority for taxpayer dollars. Agencies will have their marching orders and will be held accountable for failure.”

The order will be signed in Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) home district.