Trump signs order taking aim at controversial visa program

President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order aimed at reining in a visa program used to hire high-skilled foreign workers.

Trump turned to the populist themes of his presidential campaign during a visit to Wisconsin to sign the order.

"We are finally standing up for our workers and for our companies,” Trump said standing underneath a large American flag made out of tools at the headquarters of Snap-on, a tool manufacturer, in Kenosha, Wis. 

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The order, which the White House bills as “Buy American, Hire American,” directs federal agencies to review the H-1B visa program, which is heavily used by technology and outsourcing companies. Trump and his allies argue the program is often abused by those firms.

It also tightens enforcement of federal contracting rules mandating that American-made products are used on certain projects. 

“Together, we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure more products are stamped with those wonderful words: Made in the USA,” he said. 

The announcement comes after a week in which Trump took heat for flipping on several of the core policies — including Chinese currency manipulation and the NATO alliance — that made up his self-described “America First” campaign platform. 

Trump has rarely hit the road to tout his policy announcements, but for this one he chose to venture to Wisconsin. 

The business mogul became the first Republican since 1988 to carry the state, mostly because of his strong support among white, working-class voters. 

Many of his supporters have expressed concern that Trump’s shifts are a sign he is abandoning his campaign pledges. Tuesday’s event appeared to be designed to rebut that criticism. 

The president boasted that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days,” ticking off actions to boost the military, strengthen border security, get tough on trade and beef up law enforcement. 

But with no major legislative achievements during that critical period, Trump is again turning to executive orders to put points on the board. 

Trump’s power to change the H-1B program on his own, however, is limited. 

The order directs the departments of State, Justice, Labor and Homeland Security to propose changes to ensure that the visas “are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid” applicants. It also mandates those agencies propose rules to root out fraud and abuse in the broader worker visa system. 

Trump derided the “totally random” lottery system used to allot H-1B visas to employers to hire workers, saying it allows companies to undercut American workers by bringing in lower-paid replacements, which drives down wages.

“They should never be used to replace Americans,” the president said of the visas. 

Technology companies have defended the program, saying they cannot find enough American workers who are skilled enough to fill crucial positions. They argue that scrapping the program could cause foreign students studying math and science in America to leave the country after finishing college or graduate school. 

“Highly-skilled immigrants create new American jobs, raise wages for native-born workers, and contribute enormously to growing our economy,” said Todd Schulte, president of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s advocacy group FWD.us. “Congress should expand the number of H-1B visas offered while reforming the system to protect American workers.”

But the tech industry appeared relieved that the order did not gut the visa program entirely. 

"We are hopeful that reforms announced today by President Trump will respect the thousands of employers who use the program as intended,” Compete America, another immigration advocacy group that represents technology interests, said in a statement.

The H1-B program has long been the target of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who say it is being abused by outsourcing companies that use the visas to hire cheap foreign workers to replace Americans high-tech workers at large corporations.

“I’ve expressed to President Trump the need to take action to restore the integrity in the H-1B program,” said Sen. Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley won't attend GOP convention amid coronavirus uptick Meadows teases Trump action on immigration, China, prescription drugs Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP MORE (R-Iowa). “I’m grateful that President Trump has taken my suggestions to heart.”

The announcement was held in Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE’s (R-Wis.) district. But Ryan wasn’t there; he was leading a congressional delegation traveling to NATO countries. 

Trump’s own record on the issue of worker visas has been mixed. 

The businessman-turned-politician has taken heat for using guest workers at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and for manufacturing some of his branded consumer goods overseas.

As a candidate, Trump said the H-1B program should be ended.

"It's something that I frankly use and I shouldn't be allowed to use it,” he said during a March 2016 primary debate. “We shouldn't have it. Very, very bad for workers.”

But during a 2015 radio interview with then-Breitbart News chief Stephen Bannon, Trump voiced concern about foreign students at Ivy League schools being forced to return home. 

“We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said, according to audio unearthed last year by The Washington Post

Bannon, who is now Trump’s chief White House counselor, did not agree. 

“When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think … a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society,” he responded. 

Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller, who has long been a vocal critic of the H-1B program, were among a large group of senior administration officials present with Trump in Wisconsin for the signing. 

- Ali Breland contributed. Updated at 5:15 p.m.