Trump travels to Wisconsin tool plant to go after H-1B visas for skilled workers

18 Apr


President Donald Trump hopes to revive the economic populism that helped drive his election campaign, signing an order Tuesday in politically important Wisconsin to tighten rules on technology companies bringing in highly skilled foreign workers.

Trump toured the headquarters of tool manufacturer Snap-on Inc., and then he was expected to sign an order aimed at curbing what his administration says are hiring abuses in a visa program used by U.S. technology companies. Dubbed “Buy American, Hire American,” the directive follows a series of recent Trump reversals on economic policies.

The president is targeting the H-1B visa program, which the White House says undercuts U.S. workers by bringing in large numbers of cheaper, foreign workers, driving down wages. He was signing the directive at Snap-on Inc. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a state he narrowly carried in November on the strength of support from white, working-class voters. Trump currently has only a 41 percent approval rating in the state.

The tech industry has argued that the H-1B program is needed because it encourages students to stay in the U.S. after getting degrees in high-tech specialties — and companies can’t always find enough American workers with the skills they need.

Trump has traveled to promote his agenda less than his recent predecessors. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said he wanted to visit “a company that builds American-made tools with American workers.”

The new order would direct U.S. agencies to propose rules to prevent immigration fraud and abuse in the program. They would also be asked to offer changes so that H-1B visas are awarded to the “most-skilled or highest-paid applicants,” said administration officials who spoke only on the condition of anonymity despite the president’s frequent criticism of the use of anonymous sources.

The officials said the order also seeks to strengthen requirements that American-made products be used in certain federal construction projects, as well as in various federal grant-funded transportation projects. The commerce secretary will review how to close loopholes in existing rules and provide recommendations to the president.

The order specifically asks the secretary to review waivers of these rules in free-trade agreements. The waivers could be renegotiated or revoked if they are not benefiting the United States.

The trip brings Trump to the congressional district of House Speaker Paul Ryan, but he is out of the country on a congressional trip.

Trump campaigned on populist promises to stand up to China, which he contended was manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs, and to eliminate the Export-Import Bank, which he billed as wasteful subsidy. Trump reversed himself on both positions in interviews last week.

And while he has long pledged to support American goods and workers, his own business record is mixed. Many Trump-branded products, like clothing, are made overseas. His businesses have also hired foreign workers, including at his Palm Beach, Florida, club.

Trump said at one point during the presidential campaign that he supported high-skilled visas, then said he opposed the program. At one debate, he said: “It’s very bad for our workers and it’s unfair for our workers. And we should end it.”

Potential changes could be administrative or legislative and could include higher fees for the visas, changing the wage scale for the program or other initiatives.

Critics say the program has been hijacked by staffing companies that use the visas to recruit foreigners — often from India — who will work for less than Americans. The staffing companies then sell their services to corporate clients.

Employers, including Walt Disney World and the University of California, San Francisco, have laid off tech employees and replaced them with H-1B visa holders. U.S. workers are sometimes asked to train their replacements to qualify for severance packages.

Ronil Hira, a professor in public policy at Howard University and a critic of the H-1B program, said Trump’s planned order is “better than nothing.” But he added, “It’s not as aggressive as it needs to be.”

Trump carried Wisconsin in November by under 23,000 votes — less than 1 percentage point — making him the first Republican to win the state since 1984. He campaigned on the promise of returning manufacturing jobs that have been lost in Upper Midwest states.

Snap-on makes hand and power tools, diagnostics software, information and management systems, and shop equipment for use in various industries, including agriculture, the military and aviation. It has eight manufacturing sites in North America and employs about 11,000 people worldwide.

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