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News Story

Draft of Executive Order Looks to Re-Examine Visa Programs

Draft calls for review of regulations regarding foreign workers; Trump has been critical of H-1B visa program

By LAURA MECKLER
The Wall Street Journal
Feb. 1, 2017 8:37 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON—Having targeted border crossers, people living in the U.S. illegally and refugees, the White House appears ready to take on another controversial slice of immigration policy: the legal-immigration programs favored by technology and other companies.

A draft of an executive order for President Donald Trump’s consideration directs the government to re-examine a range of visa programs to ensure they prioritize and protect “the jobs, wages and well-being of United States workers.” The draft also repeatedly suggests existing policy gives foreigners an unfair advantage.

It mandates, for instance, that the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security issue a new regulation within 90 days “to restore the integrity of employment-based nonimmigrant worker programs and better protect U.S. and foreign workers affected by those programs.”

A White House spokesman had no comment on the draft order, which is circulating among interested parties in Washington and was posted on Vox.com. It is possible Mr. Trump may make significant changes or even decide not to issue it.

It wasn’t possible to verify the draft’s validity, but similar leaked documents wound up nearly identical to the orders that were issued.

Still, the language and direction of the order are a reminder Mr. Trump didn’t campaign for office only on promises to restrict illegal immigration or to keep out potential terrorists. He also promised to reduce overall levels of legal immigration and to enact “America first” rules that drive up wages and protect American workers.

There may be more to come. A draft of another executive order seeks to keep out foreigners who may become dependent on public benefits. It directs DHS to put forth regulations aimed at prohibiting admission of any foreigner who is “likely to receive” public benefits and to deport any foreigner who does receive such benefits.

Details of the program weren’t immediately available.

That order, whose status is also unknown, answers a longtime criticism regarding immigrants who come to the U.S. and later collect welfare benefits, though the draft offers no evidence to support the claim. Republicans often have sought to exclude immigrants—legal as well as illegal—from participating in government-aid programs.

The draft order dealing with employment visas is potentially more sweeping.

At times during his campaign, Mr. Trump was particularly critical of the H-1B program, which provides temporary work visas for high-skilled employees, including many technology companies. A total of 85,000 are available each year, including through a similar program. The demand for these visas far outstrips the supply, but some say the program is abused by companies such as outsourcing firms that cycle workers though the U.S. without later sponsoring them for permanent residency.

The executive order draft calls for a review of all existing regulations regarding foreign workers and directs the DHS secretary to “consider ways to make the process for allocating H-1B visas more efficient and ensure that beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest.”

That’s encouraging to interest groups looking for changes in the program such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, which represents American engineers and argues foreign workers are undercutting its members’ wages. The group has lobbied for H-1B visas to be allocated differently, with companies that pay the most getting more of the visas. Under current rules, the visas are distributed by lottery.

“We are very encouraged about the general tone of President Trump’s words and what the memo seems to say,” said Russ Harrison, lobbyist for the group. “They know there’s a problem here. They know if they want to bring jobs back, the H-1B has to be part of the solution.”

The draft order also mandates new inspections of work sites that participate in visa programs, calls for regulations to “reform” an optional practical training, or OPT, program that helps foreign students after they graduate, and asks for options to pressure employers to participate in the voluntary E-Verify program used to check the immigration status of potential workers.

The order draft mandates no immediate changes to most visa programs, and people on both sides of the debate are trying to figure out exactly what to make of it. Several lobbyists who work in this field declined to comment.

But the sweep of the order and its rhetoric have many immigration supporters concerned.

Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, who leads a coalition that includes business executives, sees the draft as “a road map to severely curtailing a wide range of work visa programs.”

“As drafted, the executive order is a shot across the bow of America’s economy,” he said. “It lays the groundwork for regulations, and even legislation, that would destabilize companies and undermine our global competitiveness.”

Write to Laura Meckler at laura.meckler@wsj.com

 

 

 

 

 

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