White House Back-Burners Reform to Stop Worker Replacement

President focused on illegal immigration, mum on special interest-backed visa program

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 13 Mar 2017 at 9:40 AM

Some immigration hawks are concerned President Donald Trump is not taking a sufficiently aggressive stand against a visa program that lets U.S. companies replace American workers.

The program, known as the H-1B visa, allows 85,000 foreigners a year to enter the country to work certain kinds of jobs. Companies sponsor the temporary workers and control their visas. The workers can work for up to three years and renew for an additional three.

“This certainly should be an issue, or one of the top issues, that Congress addresses. They don’t need the president.”

Supporters argue the program is needed for highly skilled foreigners to address critical shortages in key parts of the labor force. Critics contend that the relatively low salaries earned by many H-1B visa holders suggest it mostly is about keeping wages down.

More ominously, opponents point to a wave of outsourcing schemes by companies like Walt Disney World that have brought in temporary workers on H-1B visa from Indian outsourcing companies to help transfer technology jobs outside the United States. In many cases, including Disney, fired American workers have had to stay on for months to train their replacements and agree not to talk publicly about the matter as a condition of severance.

Trump spoke negatively about the program on the campaign trail, but White House press secretary Sean Spicer told The Hindu last week that the H-1B program is a lower priority than other immigration-related issues.

“I think there is the legal part of immigration and then the illegal part of immigration. The president’s actions that he’s taken in terms of his executive order and other revamping of immigration policy have focused on our border security, keeping our country safe, our people safe,” he said. “And then, obviously, whether it’s H-1B visas or the other one — spousal visas — other areas of student visas, I think there is a natural desire to have a full look at — a comprehensive look at that.”

This map, produced by the Center for Immigration Studies, show the location of "H-1B dependent" companies. This map, produced by the Center for Immigration Studies, shows the location of “H-1B dependent” companies.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said lawmakers can and should press forward, even in the absence of a strong signal from the White House.

“This certainly should be an issue, or one of the top issues, that Congress addresses,” he said. “They don’t need the president.”

Congress for years has failed to move legislation to do just that, however. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) re-introduced a bill with the start of the new Congress in January to crack down on H-1B visa abuse. It would prohibit “H-1B dependent” companies — those in which the H-1B workforce is at least 15 percent of the total — from displacing American workers unless the foreign workers make at least $100,000. The current threshold is $60,000.

Hard-liners contend the bill falls short of meaningful reform, but even that proposal remains stalled. It has been referred to an immigration subcommittee, and there has been no action.

Mehlman said it is an area where strong presidential leadership could make a difference.

“The Congress would be a lot more likely to do it if it were getting pressure from the White House,” he said.

John Miano, a lawyer and fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, remains more upbeat about the prospect of H-1B reform.

"Something got lost in translation in that statement by Mr. Spicer," he said.

Miano said he gets the impression that the issue is one the administration will move on

"I think they're more serious about doing something about it than they suggest," he said. "It would look really bad if they didn't do anything."

And there is a fair amount that the Trump administration can do even without Congress, Miano said. For instance, he said, the length of the H-1B visas is set by regulation. He said Trump could cut the term from six years to three, for example.

"President Obama set the standard here for creativity," he said. "The reality is, he [Trump] doesn't have to get anywhere near as creative as Obama did in throwing open the borders."

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