President Trump heads to Wisconsin this afternoon to pay a visit to a tool factory and the blue collar workers who helped win him the election. During the trip, he’s expected to sign what his aides are calling a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order.
According to a briefing by two senior White House officials Monday, The “Hire American” part specifically directs federal agencies to “crack down on fraud and abuse” in the immigration system. It also calls for the Departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security, and State to suggest reforms to the H-1B visa program for foreign workers.
The move comes after Trump, as a candidate, paraded laid-off IT workers onstage and called for the end of the H-1B visa program. He at first said the visas “decimate” American workers and depress U.S. wages, but later seemed to flip-flop on the issue. The government opened up applications for H-1B visas earlier this month, with allocations for 85,000 visas untouched by Trump.
What’s an H-1B visa?
The visa allows companies to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty occupations including fields like science, engineering, and information technology. Workers are usually required to have highly specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher in the specialty or its equivalent. The visas last for three years at a time.
They’re widely used in Silicon Valley, whose largest employers include outsourcing firms like Tata, Infosys, and Cognizant. According to Bloomberg, these companies tend to pay H-1B workers $65,000 to $75,000 a year, far less than the $100,000 or more at Google and Microsoft. Nearly 70% of all H-1B visas go to Indian workers.
Each year, a total of 85,000 H-1B visas are granted to foreign workers, with 20,000 earmarked for those with master’s degrees or higher. The visas are distributed through a random lottery.
Demand for the visas is so high, the U.S. government often reaches its cap within mere days of opening up the application window. This year, the New York Times documented how applications arrived by the truckload. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services met its cap on visas within just four days.
How will Trump's "Hire American" executive order change the program?
In short, it won't ... at least not yet. The president’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order is not expected to change the H-1B program immediately, but it does direct four federal agencies to propose reforms.
A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on the directive Monday, said the goal is to eventually switch away from a random lottery system for H-1B visas, which is weighted toward low-wage workers, toward a system that favors higher-skilled, higher-paid workers, like those with master’s degrees.
“You're creating an entirely new structure for awarding these visas. I mean, it is a completely -- it is a total transformation of the H-1B program,” he said.
Other possible reforms include raising fees for the visas.
The White House official also noted that ultimately, agencies will have to follow the official rulemaking process, or legislative action will be required to change the program.
Although Congress did introduce an H-1B reform bill in January, it has sat untouched in an immigration subcommittee since Jan. 13.