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Draft Executive Order Pushes for Review of H-1B Visa Program

The draft order, which leaked to several news organizations, could spur reforms to the H-1B visa program that technology companies cherish and that critics denounce for fueling outsourcing.

The Donald Trump administration is mulling over a broad review of the H-1B visa program that lets thousands of foreign engineers and computer scientists work in the United States, according to a draft of an executive order leaked to several news organizations.

This year, around 85,000 foreign nationals were granted H-1B visas, which enable them to temporarily live and work in the United States at the company that applied for the visa. Technology and semiconductor companies use H-1B visas to fill entry-level jobs and hire international college graduates.

But critics, including some electrical engineers and small businesses, say the program has a dark underbelly. They say that aspects of the H-1B program choke off jobs for American engineers and that the visas allow large corporations to save money by outsourcing jobs to imported workers. The random lottery drawing for H-1B visas is also contentious.

If signed, the draft order would launch an investigation into “the extent of any injury to U.S. workers caused by the employment in the United States of foreign workers admitted under nonimmigrant visa programs,” which includes the H-1B and the L-1 visa for employees that have worked in a foreign branch of a company and request transfer to the U.S.

A final report would be due 18 months after the order is signed.

The draft lacks specific alterations to the H-1B program, but the Department of Labor review would seek ways to make the application process more efficient and benefit only “the best and brightest,” a phrase that H-1B critics have used for years to highlight the workers that the program is ignoring.

The status of the executive order is unclear. Written by Andrew Bremberg, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, the leaked document could be anything from a rough draft to the final version. A future version could be vastly different.

The draft was first published last week by the news website Vox. Bloomberg and the Associated Press also obtained copies of the executive order, which Electronic Design could not independently verify.

Trump criticized the H-1B program during his presidential campaign and has folded opponents of the program into its cabinet. At one point that he invited former Disney workers who lost their jobs to H-1B replacements to speak at a Florida rally. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, has pushed to completely eliminate H-1B visas for years.

But the fact that the draft wants to start with a review of the visa program could mean that Trump intends to keep the program running. If signed, the executive order would follow Trump’s immigration ban on countries including Iran and Syria. Google and Microsoft, which both hire H-1B workers from those countries, were two of the highest profile companies to speak out against that ban.

In electrical engineering, the H-1B program has a spotted history. In a 2013 Electronic Design survey, 19% of respondents said their companies used the H-1B visa program, but many were concerned about the visa's negative impact. Though only 9% felt personally threatened by the program, over 40% said that it cut into American engineering jobs.

That has been the refrain among the program’s critics. Many proposed changes targets how outsourcing companies, which exploit H-1B visas to import workers for entry-level technology jobs, operate.

The IEEE-USA, a leading American trade group for electrical engineers, has urged giving priority to companies that pay higher wages and hire more experienced engineers. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democratic representative, proposed a bill last month that would favor visas for higher paying jobs. Under her bill, a fifth of the H-1B slots would be reserved for small businesses.

“My legislation refocuses the H-1B program to its original intent – to seek out and find the best and brightest from around the world, and to supplement the U.S. workforce with talented, highly-paid, and highly-skilled workers who help create jobs here in America, not replace them,” said Lofgren in a statement.

Lawmakers have also presented H-1B bills in Congress. Last month, Chuck Grassley, a Republication Senator from Iowa, and Dick Durbin, a Democratic Senator from Illinois, reintroduced a bill to prioritize H-1B applicants with advanced degrees and high-paying job offers. They first proposed the legislation in 2007.

“Congress created these programs to complement America’s high-skilled workforce, not replace it,” Grassley said in a statement. The law would also require companies to make a “good faith” effort to hire American workers first.

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