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Trump's visa changes could favor more skilled, higher wage workers

By Paul Welitzkin in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2017-04-20 07:15

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order that could tighten the H-1B immigrant visa program that is popular with skilled workers from India and China.

He signed the order during a visit to the headquarters of Snap-On Inc, a tool manufacturer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, saying that H-1B visas should "never be used to replace Americans", adding that "we are about to take bold new steps to follow through on my pledge to buy American and hire American".

"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," he said.

The order prods the Justice Department and other federal agencies to propose reforms to ensure H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid foreign applicant.

Trump's visa changes could favor more skilled, higher wage workers

It also directs a separate review of government purchasing requirements, which, along with tightening the requirements for foreign workers, is a move by Trump to carry out his "America First" election campaign pledge.

Created in 1990, H-1B enables US companies to sponsor nonimmigrant visas to temporarily employ foreign workers with bachelor's degrees in areas like computer programming, engineering, and science. The visas are in high demand and given out using a lottery system. It can take six months or longer for an application to be reviewed.

Annual pool

The US sets an annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas, which includes 20,000 for foreign workers with advanced degrees. Less than a week after the application period opened for 2017 H-1B visas, the annual cap was reached from a pool of 199,000 applications, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services said earlier this month.

"Chinese petitions comprise about 5-10 percent of the H-1B pool, which is a distant second to India, which comprises approximately three quarters of all petitions mostly for tech jobs," New York-based immigration attorney Jae Lee said in an email.

Lee said Trump's order calls for a review of the current lottery system in favor of a merit-based one, which would make getting an H1-B visa more competitive, giving priority to the highest-paid or most-skilled workers. Such a system may also level the playing field for applicants from countries other than India, whose technology outsourcing firms dominate the applicant pool each year, Lee said.

Going to a merit-based system "would ensure that only the most-skilled or highest-paid foreign workers would be chosen, incentivizing companies to look to hire American workers first," Lee added.

However, Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor at Cornell University's law school, said the order is an overly simple solution to a complex problem.

"We should vigorously enforce our immigration laws to make sure companies pay the correct wage, but not harm innovation in the process. Studies show that for every H-1B position requested, US technology companies increase their employment by five workers. Research also finds that 51 percent of the country's $1 billion startup companies had at least one immigrant founder," he said.

June Chang and Lia Zhu in San Francisco contributed to this story.

 Trump's visa changes could favor more skilled, higher wage workers

US President Donald Trump smiles after signing an executive order directing federal agencies to recommend changes to a temporary visa program used to bring foreign workers to the United States in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

(China Daily 04/20/2017 page10)

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