Trump officials clamp down on worker visas

Trump officials clamp down on worker visas
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The Trump administration is beginning to impose restrictions on visas for foreign workers, creating new uncertainty for the tech industry.

The White House appeared poised to enact sweeping new restrictions on worker visas earlier this year, when Vox obtained a draft executive order with a slew of policy changes under consideration. The draft said the policies were aimed at prioritizing “the interests of American workers and — to the maximum degree possible — the jobs, wages, and well-being of those workers.”

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That executive order was never issued, but it appears that some of the ideas it contained are now winding their way into the Trump administration.

Without fanfare, the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Friday issued a policy memo that would make it harder for companies to fill computer programmer positions with workers on H-1B visas. The memo stated that being a computer programmer is no longer sufficient to qualify as a “specialty occupation.”

The agency followed up Monday by announcing that it would begin to crack down on H-1B visa abuses by conducting targeted site visits to companies with a high proportion of high-skilled visas in their workforce.

“The H-1B visa program should help U.S. companies recruit highly-skilled foreign nationals when there is a shortage of qualified workers in the country,” the agency said. “Yet, too many American workers who are as qualified, willing, and deserving to work in these fields have been ignored or unfairly disadvantaged.”

In a separate release on Monday, the Department of Justice said that it “will not tolerate employers misusing the H-1B visa process to discriminate against U.S. workers.”

The administration on Monday also asked a federal appeals court to pause looking at a case challenging the legality of a policy allowing the spouses of H-1B visa holders to also have the ability to work in the U.S.

All the announcements are in step with a portion of the draft executive order, which said the Homeland Security Department would begin conducting “site visits” to ensure that worker visas are not being abused.

Technology companies, which use the visas to staff software and engineering positions, are watching the administration’s movements closely.

“Unpredictability is the thing we’re most concerned about,” said one technology industry official. “We’re keeping a close eye on these policies. We want to give guidance to our employees that may be affected, but we don’t know which ones will be yet.”

The official said that the concern at their company was no longer if H-1B visas will be reduced in volume, but whether the entire program might ultimately be scrapped. 

“We’re worried that the whole program would be dismantled,” the official said, adding that the fear was rooted in the direction of the administration’s overall policies and rhetoric on immigration, rather than specific conversations with the White House.

Some Silicon Valley leaders are hesitant to publicly clash with President Trump; many declined to comment on the record about the administration’s immigration policies, with one noting that the topic is sensitive.

Fwd.us, an immigration reform advocacy group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley titans like Bill Gates and Marissa Mayer, said the administration’s overall policy direction on immigration is an open question.

“I don’t think we know. I think we’re not sure,” said Fwd.us President Todd Schulte when asked about what the recent high-skilled immigration announcements mean for Silicon Valley and tech overall. “We’re still digging in, and it’s kind of an open question as to where things are going.”

Schulte added that his group is supportive of targeted efforts to crack down on H-1B abuses, which he said has long been a problem.

“The question is, will there be efforts to go after bad actors in the system?” Schulte said. “[Companies employing a high percentage of H-1B workers] are not using the visas correctly. If your business model is 80 to 90 percent of your company on H-1B visas that’s a problem. We’ve supported efforts to get rid of this practice.”

Schulte did, however, note opposition to the potential removal provision allowing spouses to hold jobs.

“We strongly feel they should keep this regulation in place, and they should not deny a quarter million people” the ability to work, said Schulte said in an interview with Recode Tuesday.

The tech industry has had an uneasy relationship with Trump after many prominent executives were outspoken supporters of his Democratic presidential rival, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey MORE.

Leading Silicon Valley executives met with Trump during the transition, with many saying they were willing to give his White House a chance.

But Trump’s executive order banning travel from to the United States from several Muslim-majority nations shattered that detente. Leaders of the tech industry lined up to condemn the order.

The discord between the Trump administration and the tech industry could escalate quickly if the president begins to pursue more aggressive restrictions on high-skilled worker visas, one industry source said.

— A quote in this story from Todd Schulte about the use of green cards was corrected on April 7. The Hill regrets the error.