In a move anticipated since he took office, President Donald Trump April 18 signed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, which seeks – in part – to reform the H-1B visa program for highly-skilled foreign workers.

The new directive does not specify changes to the existing program, but instead mandates the Departments of Homeland Security, Labor, and State to propose new and revised rules and guidance to prevent fraud and abuse in the immigration system, and suggest reforms to ensure H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled and higher-paid foreign workers. The H-1B visas are used extensively by Indian IT firms.

“Right now, widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing American workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to fill the same job for sometimes less pay. This will stop,” emphatically stated the president, speaking at the Kenosha, Wisconsin, headquarters of Snap-On, a tool manufacturing company.

“American workers have long called for reforms to end these visa abuses. And today, their calls are being answered for the first time. That includes taking the first steps to set in motion a long-overdue reform of H-1B visas,” said Trump to cheers from the gathered crowd. As the president spoke, viewers watching the speech on Facebook from several live-streams, used the “angry” emoji to register their disapproval.

The president stated his disapproval of the lottery program, which currently determines who gets the highly-coveted visas. “Instead, they should be given to the most-skilled and highest-paid applicants, and they should never, ever be used to replace Americans,” he said.

“No one can compete with American workers when they're given a fair and level playing field, which has not happened for decades,” said Trump, vowing to use a metaphoric sledge-hammer to thump down “job-killing regulations.”

The White House forwarded to India-West a background briefing on the new executive order, which stated in part: “For too long, rather than operating as designed and allowing only the best and brightest to come in and fill key positions, the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program has been administered in a way that harms American workers. Specifically, it has led to a flood of relatively low-wage, low-skill workers in the tech sector.”

“The net effect has been to crowd out American workers, and in some cases, to lead to the direct and indirect replacement of American workers with cheaper labor from abroad. In some cases, American workers have even been forced to train their foreign replacements.”

“Our goal is to ensure that U.S. workers who are just as qualified, willing and deserving to work in these fields are not ignored or otherwise unfairly disadvantaged in the H-1B process,” stated the White House, in the written briefing.

Indian American immigration attorney Navneet Chugh told India-West that the administration’s notion of widespread abuse of the program was “ridiculous.”

“There is a 99 percent success rate in the program,” stated Chugh.

During the 2017 H-1B season, which began April 3, 199,000 H-1B applications were filed, a substantial drop from the 236,000 applications filed the previous year.

“This fight is about less than a quarter percent of the 161 million American work force,” stated Chugh, adding that H-1B workers heavily contribute to the U.S. economy.

Chugh noted that the current quotas were mandated at a time when the technology industry was still in its nascent stage of development. “Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon did not exist then,” he said, naming some of the largest consumers of H-1B workers. The immigration attorney stated that H-1B caps – currently limited to 85,000 new visas per year – should be expanded, to keep the U.S. competitive in the global economy.

“For the U.S. to keep complaining about H-1B quotas is complete hogwash,” he said.

Chugh said he supported limiting the workforce of individual companies to no more than 50 percent H-1B employees.

San Francisco, Calif., immigration attorney Martin Lawler also stated his support for expanding the H-1B visa program. “These workers are invaluable in allowing us to compete in the global economy,” he told India-West.

“The platforms we use in our daily lives are supported by workers from overseas. To take out the stars of our economy for some anti-immigrant sentiment is just ridiculous,” said Lawler, who also supports raising the current caps on the program.

He noted that the administration was putting out a lot of mis-information, including the notion that 50 percent of foreign graduates from U.S. universities who are enrolled in the Optional Practical Training program – which allows them to stay on for an additional 18 months after graduation – are not working in their chosen fields. “There’s no evidence to back that up,” he said.

Lawler also dismissed the Trump administration’s claim of widespread abuse of the H-1B program. The immigration attorney said he represents a lot of smaller firms and would like to see changes in the allocation of visas to allow smaller companies to compete with larger firms to get a few H-1B workers.

In an open letter to the Trump administration, 1,470 U.S. economists – both conservative and progressive – stated that immigrants contribute a broad economic benefit to the U.S. The economists noted that immigration brings in entrepreneurs who start new businesses which employ American workers, and are far more likely to work in science, technology, engineering and math fields, creating life-improving products which drive economic growth.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo April 3 stating its intent to further police companies who have a large number of H-1B workers. The agency stated its intent to make site visits to employers with whom the agency could not validate basic information through commercially available data, and will also conduct greater policing of employers who have a disproportionate number of H-1B workers as compared to their U.S. employees.

USCIS will also lend greater scrutiny to employers petitioning for H-1B workers who work off-site at another company or location. (See India-West article here.)

AP adds: 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.

The executive 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.

Democratic lawmakers and organizations ranging from the pro-business Chamber of Commerce to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation say they welcome proposals to improve the visa program, though not always in line with Trump's ideas.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., urged Trump to skip further study and support her bill to rebuild U.S. infrastructure with American iron and steel. The Chamber of Commerce added that it would be a "mistake to close the door on high-skilled workers" who can contribute to the growth and expansion of American businesses and make the U.S. more competitive around the world.

According to a report in The New York Times, technology executives, who have argued that the program is vital to their ability to recruit talent, are likely to be frustrated by the change.

Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, predicted in January that a crackdown on H-1B visas would be counterproductive.

“The effect would end up being exactly the opposite of what Trump wants,” he said. “Companies would go offshore, like Microsoft did with Vancouver, Canada,” to seek talent.

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