Trump's H-1B executive order is PR, not policy

President Trump scores a photo op, but the real fight over H-1B visa reform has yet to begin

Trump's H-1B executive order is PR, not policy
Credit: Thinkstock

The executive order on H-1B visas that President Trump signed this week was loudly trumpeted as a win for American workers. In reality, his “Buy American and Hire American” directive was more PR than policy. The real fight over H-1B hasn’t even begun.

As a candidate, Trump vowed to kill the H-1B visa program with “no exceptions.” His order instead calls on the Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department to submit a list of suggested reforms that would curb abuse of the system.

That request could have been accomplished without an executive order, but the president would have missed his photo op at the Snap-On tools factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin—a PR move that would have been an even more effective if Snap-On didn’t itself employ tech workers on H-1B visas at below-average wages.

In a press briefing, a senior White House official praised the executive order as “a total transformation of the H-1B program,” and said “the acknowledgment of the problem in and of itself is quite remarkable.”

That sounds an awful lot like handing Trump a trophy simply for turning up at the game. H-1B reform has been a staple on Capitol Hill for several years. Four new reform bills were introduced this year alone. Sen. Dick Durbin, who co-authored one of the bills that would put more restrictions on the visas, said Trump’s executive order falls short.

“We already know H-1B visa abuse displaces American workers. President Trump missed a chance to deliver on his promise of bold action to put American workers first,” Durbin said. “For a president who has prided himself on his swift action when it comes to immigration, an interagency review of the program is a guarded and timid approach. It’s too little, too late.”

Very few people are satisfied with the way 85,000 visas are awarded in the current lottery system. Year after year, the majority of the slots go to outsourcing firms, and critics say the program has evolved into “a pipeline for a few big companies to hire cheap labor.”

Agreeing on what reform should look like is the sticking point. But nearly 100 days into his presidency, Trump doesn’t seem to know what kind of visa program he wants. This executive order “gives President Trump the flexibility to tell his base he’s cracking down on H-1B visa abuses without actually enacting any immediate changes that might upset the business community,” Wired writes.

Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank, says, “We hope President Trump’s [goal] is ‘mend it, don’t end it.’” However, “some of the ideas that have been suggested, such as requiring applicants to advertise job openings for an extended period of time to prove conclusively that no U.S. workers are available, could be so onerous that it renders the program ineffective,” he cautioned. “We are talking about fast-moving industries. Companies get opportunities, and they have to jump on them. Delaying them for too long would be bad for innovation, job creation, and growth.”

Technology leaders like Mark Zuckerberg have argued for an increase in the number of visas, noting that the United States “kicks out the more than 40 percent of math and science graduate students who are not U.S. citizens after educating them.” These STEM degree holders could have become key job creators, according to fans of expanding the number of visas. They note that 46 percent of U.S. innovators are immigrants or the children of immigrants. That’s the strength of America as a melting pot, right?

But others, like Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, are uncomfortable with the large number of CEOs in Silicon Valley who are immigrants, claiming they undermine “civic society.“

That’s a message many would have liked Trump to disavow. “While they’re tweaking the system, I think it’s really important for the headline to read, ‘Immigrants Are Still Welcome Here,’” Neeraj Agrawal, a venture capitalist with Battery Ventures in Boston, told the New York Times. “What I’m really worried about is the undercurrent of tone and message people are hearing is that they’re no longer welcome. We have to get that right.”

Reform will now stall while the departments conduct their reviews. Trump’s executive order sets no deadline for when policy suggestions need to be submitted, and in this vacuum, uncertainty and fear about the future for H-1B visas could have a dampening effect on the economy—in much the same way that Trump’s proposed travel ban has had a damaging effect on U.S. tourism.

Some see the changing attitude toward foreign workers already having a chilling effect. Immigration attorney Reaz Jafri told the Los Angeles Times he has one client, a Spanish national who graduated from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who has decided to establish his robotics startup in Spain rather struggle to get a visa to stay in the United States. Another client, a Chinese national who has raised money for an AI startup, will probably also headquarter his company overseas.

“This will hurt our country and our economy,” Jafri said of the executive order. “The reason why Google, IBM, and Apple are what they are today is because they were able to recruit the best from around the world.”

Meanwhile, we wait. “The real question is whether the agencies will follow through with substantive improvements to the program. It's too early to tell what this means for the H-1B program,” said Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Howard University and author of “Outsourcing America.”

That hardly sounds like a win for American workers.