President Donald Trump holds a listening session with the CEOs of small and community banks on March 9, 2017.(Photo: Pool photo, Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — With just three weeks to go before the federal government is set to start issuing an annual allotment of visas for foreign workers, advocates for Americans displaced by foreigners are increasingly worried President Trump won’t take action in time to fix the problem, and thousands more American jobs will be lost.
Numerous companies have outsourced work in recent years to contractors that use foreign labor, mainly tech workers with coveted H-1B visas. That includes companies such as Disney, New York Life, and Toys R Us.
Last week, the University of California San Francisco laid off 49 IT employees after outsourcing much of their work to a contractor based in India, the Mercury News reported. Workers with H-1Bs facilitated the laid off employees’ training of their replacements.
Trump promised on the campaign trail to “end forever” such “rampant, widespread H-1B abuse.” A draft executive order that leaked in January directed administration officials to “restore the integrity” of the system and prioritize and protect the “jobs, wages and well-being of United States workers.”
But the president has yet to sign it, and companies can start applying for the new batch of 85,000 H-1B visas April 1. In previous years, the annual allotments have been exhausted within days.
“If you do not take action in the next few weeks, outsourcers will secure the right to import tens of thousands of low-wage foreign guest workers to replace American workers,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wrote in a letter to Trump.
The White House has given little indication of Trump’s intentions on the issue. After the draft order leaked and again on Wednesday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said only that the president is reviewing the matter as part of a larger overhaul of immigration policies.
“I think there is a natural desire to have a full look, a comprehensive look, at that,” he said.
The H-1B visas are supposed to help fill gaps in the U.S. labor market by allowing companies to hire foreign workers when they can’t find enough Americans with the skills to fill the positions. The number of visas each year is capped at 65,000 for workers with bachelors’ degrees or higher, plus another 20,000 for workers who obtained masters’ degrees or higher from a U.S. institution. There is no cap for institutes of higher learning.Undercutting Americans' salaries
But critics say companies increasingly have exploited the program to bring in foreign workers with lower pay rates than Americans.
Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at Howard University, concluded that the companies receiving the most H-1B visas in recent years have been firms based in India or American subsidiaries that bring in foreign workers and take over IT functions as contractors that once were performed by American workers.
“Tens of thousands of people, I estimate, have been replaced directly or essentially replaced,” said Hira, author of Outsourcing America: What's Behind Our National Crisis and How We Can Reclaim American Jobs.
Tech industry specialists say the majority of H-1Bs are going to multi-national American companies competing in a global marketplace that can choose to take those jobs elsewhere.
“They’ll just expand their facilities in the Czech Republic or in Singapore, or wherever it might be because they have a global demand they have to satisfy,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Or they will lose out on contracts and sales and then foreign companies will gain global market share.”
For Trump, the issue presents a challenge: How can he fulfill promises to protect and create American jobs while also growing the U.S. economy and making it easier for U.S. companies to do business.
Supporters of reining in H-1Bs were buoyed when he named a supporter of their cause, Stephen Miller, as a top adviser, and when the draft executive order leaked. But their hopes have dimmed as weeks have passed without action. In addition, a top Indian-American Trump donor, Chicago-based Shalabh "Shalli" Kumar, told reporters last month that the president would not sign the order and would, in fact, increase the number of H-1Bs available, according to PTI reports.
Durbin, who referenced those comments in his letter to Trump, said he had thought the issue would be one of the few where he actually agreed with the White House.
“The president has said over and over again, ‘It’s about buy American, hire Americans;' It was another one of the president’s first-day-in-office promises,’” Durbin said in an interview. “The letter was to remind him the work still needs to be done.”