President Trump’s executive order that would kick-start the overhaul of a problematic visa program is a good move that should be strongly pursued.
The H-1B program started in 1990 with a valid goal: allowing companies to tap foreign talent for specialized jobs when there was a shortage of U.S. candidates. Some companies undoubtedly use the program as intended. But there also have been growing reports of employers who abuse it, either passing over qualified U.S. candidates or firing U.S. workers and replacing them with visa-holders. In one well-publicized incident, Southern California Edison — a public utility — fired hundreds of highly skilled IT workers making between $80,000 and $160,000 in 2014. Some of those jobs were outsourced overseas, others replaced by H-1B workers supplied by Indian contracting firms that annually scoop up a majority of such visas.
Trump has called such abuses a “theft of American prosperity,” and on this point he’s right. States — Minnesota among them — spend enormous amounts of money and effort to create and attract just such solid, middle-class jobs that set families on a path to a brighter future. The need for foreign workers in certain job categories may be genuine, but this country must set careful boundaries to any program that could be used to crowd out Americans. It should never be possible to fire a U.S. worker without cause and replace him or her with a foreign visa holder. How often that happens is unknown, although a 2011 Government Accountability Office report indicated that the H-1B program was poorly enforced and lacked adequate oversight.
The Star Tribune found that Minnesota ranks 17th nationally in filings for H-1B visas — with a 75 percent increase just since 2012. The average salary for those nearly 10,000 applications was more than $83,000. A number of Minnesota’s biggest corporations make use of the program and maintain it gives them a critical advantage by allowing them to hire the most talented, innovative workers from all over the world.
This is not a call to end the H-1B program, but rather to make sure that every effort is first made to hire U.S. job candidates. That should particularly be the goal for companies that receive government funding or are themselves public entities, such as state universities.
Trump’s order has yet to take final shape. He has directed the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and others to make recommendations that will preserve the program, but give a stronger edge to American workers. Trump’s order also will require the government to give first consideration to U.S. companies bidding on federal contracts, and that too is a welcome move.
A couple of H-1B visa fixes under consideration include ending the lottery system in favor of one that gives visa priority to the highest-paid, most specialized positions, for which there might easily be a shortage. Right now, the salary floor to qualify for an H-1B visa is $60,000. The skill set at that pay level would not appear to be beyond the reach of American workers. Companies who want to hire outside the U.S. workforce — among the best educated in the world — should be prepared to make a strong case for doing so.