Most of the immigration talk over the last week has been about Pres. Trump's "border wall". Meanwhile, Congress continues to consider increases in H-2B visas for low-skilled foreign workers, and tens of thousands of American tech workers continue to suffer from flatlined wages and fewer job opportunities. Building the wall may have been Trump's most famous campaign pledge, but he also pledged to protect American workers from foreign worker competition.
Last week's "Buy American, Hire American" Executive Order takes a strong first step at addressing the H-1B issue. The April 18 order calls on the Departments of State, Justice, Labor, and Homeland Security to examine ways to replace the current lottery system in awarding H-1B visas with a process that awards visas to more-qualified or higher paid foreign workers.
The FY2018 H-1B filing process began a few weeks ago and has already closed after the government received 199,000 applications. There's not much the Trump administration can do in determining the next crop of H-1B workers, but it should get something in place before the FY2019 filing process begins next spring.
Congress has given the executive branch authority to determine how nonimmigrant visas, including H-1Bs, are issued, particularly when the number of applications exceeds the annual caps. The current lottery process for the issuance of H-1B visas is currently defined by federal regulation. So it's well within the Trump administration's authority to change the current process to better serve American workers.
Barack Obama used the rule-making process to expand the pool of higher-skilled foreign workers. It would be perfectly reasonable for the Trump administration to use the same rule-making process to shrink the pool and reprioritize the way foreign worker visas are awarded.
One way to reform the H-1B program is to award visas to the highest salaries first. This proposal has the support of advocates looking to lessen the harm on American tech workers, and even has some support in Congress. In the 114th Congress, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced S. 2365, along with now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that would not only reduce the H-1B annual cap, but also require the visas to be issued by salary.
H-1B visas aren't the only issue, however. The Optional Training Program, or OPT, allows foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges or universities with a degree in a STEM field to work for up to 24 months after graduation. The goal of the program was to provide foreign students with work skills that they can then bring back to their home countries. But, instead, OPT is used by employers as a bridge to the H-1B visa program and a way to drive down wages and discriminate against older tech workers.
OPT was never passed by Congress; it was created by Pres. George W. Bush and expanded by Obama. Since it was created by the executive branch, it would be simple for Pres. Trump to eliminate it.
For years, the tech industry has been claiming that there's a job shortage, but research from the Center for Immigration Studies has found no evidence of a tech worker shortage. CIS found that there are plenty of Americans with STEM degrees to fill open jobs and that wages have been mostly flat for at least a decade. If there were a true worker shortage, wages would rise. The Trump administration can confirm these findings by ordering the Government Accountability Office to study the impacts of both the H-1B program and OPT on wages for American tech workers and job prospects for older workers.
Aside from the tech industry, the job prospects for lower-skilled American workers remains bleak. But several Members of Congress are aggressively pushing for an increase in the number of H-2B low-skilled visas made available each year by exempting returning workers from the annual cap of 66,000.
Trump won the presidency on the backs of blue collar workers. These are the very workers that often rely on the jobs given to H-2B visa holders to make ends meet. Trump should publicly oppose any expansion of the H-2B guest worker program.
Controlling illegal immigration would go a long way in helping American workers, and certainly improving border security would help control illegal immigration. But the administration shouldn't limit itself just to improving enforcement. Reforming the guest worker programs that allow employers to hire cheaper, foreign workers over American workers would provide instant relief. It may not be as headline grabbing as "building a wall", but it could have a larger impact.
CHRIS CHMIELENSKI is the Director of Content & Activism for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, May 12th 2017 @ 11:20am EDT