Report: Trump plans H-1B and other work visa reforms

As the tech world continues its strong opposition to the executive order that has restricted entry to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries, it appears the Trump administration is gearing up for chapter two.

According to a report in Bloomberg today, the Trump administration has drafted another immigration executive order, this one aimed at overhauling work visas such as the H-1B program used by many tech companies to bring in talent from outside the U.S. to fill jobs.

Current U.S. legislation caps the number at 85,000 work visas annually, a number which has been in place for years and is oversubscribed. It’s not clear if the draft would seek to reduce the number of workers allowed to enter under such programs, and by how much if so; or it if will make it harder to get applications approved — and by what measures. (As usual, the devil will be in the details.)

What we know for now is that, in keeping with Trump’s “America-first” agenda, the idea will be to restrict these visa programs to compel companies operating in the U.S. to hire domestically by making it harder to bring in people from abroad.

The relevant passage from the draft, per Bloomberg:

“Our country’s immigration policies should be designed and implemented to serve, first and foremost, the U.S. national interest,” it reads. “Visa programs for foreign workers … should be administered in a manner that protects the civil rights of American workers and current lawful residents, and that prioritizes the protection of American workers — our forgotten working people — and the jobs they hold.”

Bloomberg writes that the draft, as it is now, covers a number of visa programs beyond the H-1B program that is popular with tech companies, including L-1, E-2 and B1 visa programs.

The draft, according to the report, also includes measures to add more transparency to the visa programs, by publishing regular reports detailing statistics about who uses the program, some information that currently requires FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to obtain.

For those who have been following Trump before and after his election, reforming H-1B and the other visa programs should not come as a surprise. It fits squarely with his administration’s position on boosting the U.S. workforce and the U.S. economy, by essentially putting in rules and penalties to make it harder to hire or import products from abroad.

Trump’s first actions out the door have caused a lot of outcry from both within the U.S. and abroad — in part because of the signal it is giving to the world of how the U.S. views its role as an influencer on humanitarian issues, and in part because of the direct and chaotic results of those actions, and in part because of the impact it will have on specific sectors (like the tech world).

In contrast, it seems the reported H-1B draft appears to be leaning on an ongoing issue: there are legislators from both sides of the aisle already proposing reforms to the H-1B rules as they stand today.

One of the issues is that the same routes are used not only by large tech companies to bring in top talent, but by startups, and by large outsourcing companies, and they are therefore oversubscribed and the visas sometimes used in ways that they were not intended.

Other reforms that have been put forward include a proposal last week from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, who is the congresswoman from the district that includes San Jose, which seeks to curtail what she describes as “outsourcing abuse” of the program by adding in higher salary requirements to make the program more competitive.

And Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin (respectively a Republican and Democrat) also last week submitted legislation in the Senate aimed at “increasing enforcement, modifying wage requirements and securing protections for both American workers and visa holders.”

“Reforming the H-1B and L-1 visa programs is a critical component of fixing our broken immigration system and must be included in comprehensive immigration reform legislation. For years, foreign outsourcing companies have used loopholes in the laws to displace qualified American workers and facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs.  The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act would end these abuses and protect American and foreign workers from exploitation.  I thank Senator Grassley for partnering with me on this important bipartisan legislation,” Durbin said in a statement.

H-1B visa holders were already being impacted by last week’s immigration order, if they were from any of the seven countries named in it (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen): Google, for one, recalled staff from abroad, including visa holders, in the wake of the order in case they were barred from entering later. Around 190 Google employees were affected.

We have contacted the White House, as well as Senator Grassley and Rep. Lofgren for responses and will update as we learn more.