Trump's Latest Executive Order Targets High Skilled Worker Visa Program

Apr 18, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

As we just heard, one of the key parts of this new executive order has to do with a popular visa program for highly skilled workers called H-1B. The majority of these visas go to tech jobs, making this a major policy priority for companies in that field.

NPR's tech reporter Alina Selyukh is here to tell us what the president's new order means for the industry. Hey there.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi.

MCEVERS: So why are H-1Bs the focus of the president's latest immigration order?

SELYUKH: Well, as we just heard Scott say earlier, the majority of H-1B workers across tech and other professions, I have to say - they are paid less than an American worker would get in the same job. And we often hear that there's a shortage of skilled tech workers in the country, but then what does it mean when H-1B workers are paid less than American workers would get paid? Here's how Daniel Costa put it. He's an immigration expert at the Economic Policy Institute which focuses on low- and middle-income workers.

DANIEL COSTA: What that tells me is that either employers are using the H-1B program to hire many, many skilled workers and then underpaying them when they're here, or they're using it to hire entry-level workers.

SELYUKH: And overall, this creates a really skewed workplace for everyone involved.

MCEVERS: Which tech companies rely the most on H-1B visas?

SELYUKH: The kinds of companies that often get singled out here are firms based in India that do IT contracting. When they get hired on, they're often accused of bringing workers from overseas to replace U.S. workers at cheaper wages, sometimes even shipping the same workers right back to completely move the job overseas.

And the key problem here is that the H-1B visa is handed out by a lottery. It's totally random. And Indian IT companies flood the system with applications, and they just win with sheer volume. And so for years, there's been talk of replacing the lottery with something less arbitrary. And Trump's proposal suggests a system that would prioritize visas for the highest-paying jobs.

MCEVERS: So could that be a good thing for the companies that are competing for these H-1B slots?

SELYUKH: Probably. The important thing to note here is that we are just starting to receive the specifics of the order. Giving priority to higher-paying jobs could really weed out the low-skilled workers who are masquerading as irreplaceable experts who cannot be found in the United States. But how affordable this kind of competition will be to small companies, how this whole system works - all of that will be hashed out over the next few months.

But most importantly, Costa and other experts always point out that the executive order can only do fixes around the margins. Trump here is directing agencies to study their power to fix the program, but whatever they do is likely to be challenged in court, and a kind of durable change really requires Congress.

MCEVERS: And what have you heard from people in the tech sector about the president's order?

SELYUKH: I think the favorite Washington cliche really applies here. They're saying they're cautiously optimistic. Or as one official put it, at least they're not pessimistic. There's really nothing terrible here for them. They like the idea of replacing the lottery with a merit-based system. They like the idea of reining in abuses. But frankly, what we're really likely to see is a really long process over which this gets hashed out.

The tech industry does not want it to be harder for the domestic companies to hire foreign talent. Ultimately they ideally would actually want the program to be bigger and give them more H-1B slots, but those are the kinds of things that can only be hashed out in Congress. There are several bills which we may or may not see really heat up in the next few months.

MCEVERS: NPR tech reporter Alina Selyukh, thank you.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.