More fairness might fix H-1B visa program

There are reasons President Donald Trump chose Wisconsin to sign his “America First” executive order putting modest limits on the H-1B visas that allow companies to bring foreign-born workers with high-demand skills to America. Such an order is far more popular (and useless) in Wisconsin than it is in, say, Silicon Valley.

That’s part of the reason Trump picked a factory in Kenosha (in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district) where Snap-on tools are made. But they’ve got it backwards. Trump’s order is to make it more difficult to bring workers into America, not send jobs out. Snap-on makes great tools, but the company has little need for computer scientists skilled in mapping new pathways for moving data at nearly light-speed.

That kind of work is done mainly in California. And in Silicon Valley, Trump’s executive order isn’t so popular. In fact, tech executives have been lobbying him to raise the cap of 85,000 H-1B visas, not curtail it. Not only are the imported employees less expensive, it is more difficult for them to switch employers if a better offer comes along. They tend to work hard, stay in their jobs and be grateful for being paid only a little less than American workers.

That’s part of the reason so many dislike the program; they say it depresses wages and displaces Americans with similar skills. There’s some merit to both arguments.

Studies have shown specific companies have hired up to 6,000 H-1B employees at roughly 7 percent lower pay then used them to get rid of current employees. The New York Times reported in 2015 that Walt Disney World and Northeast Utilities, an East Coast power company furloughed hundreds of American tech employees and replaced them with H-1B workers. At the power company, the laid-off workers were required to train their imported replacements.

Outsourcing companies have acted as middlemen, finding foreign talent then shopping it to companies as a cost savings. Some such companies have broken rules, exploiting the foreign workers while displacing Americans. Two, Infosys and Tata, have been fined millions for such violations, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

At the same time, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group reports it has 125,000 job openings a year even as U.S. colleges graduate only 50,000 computer science degree majors (and half are born outside the U.S.). The thought that all these jobs are going to be filled by Rust Belt workers with Trump University diplomas is the kind of fantasy peddled by Trump adviser Steve Bannon, a self-described nationalist steeped in alt-reality.

It’s time to review the H-1B program from both sides; fortunately, Congress has several bills to do just that.

Real fixes will be neither jingoistic or antagonistic. We must be fair to workers but cannot become less welcoming to the world’s brightest minds and greatest talent. We need them here.

Companies such as Google, Tesla, eBay and Amazon were all created – in America – by immigrants. Apple founder Steve Jobs is the son of immigrants. The list is long and its thread is woven throughout our history – from Levi Strauss to Andrew Carnegie to Alexander Graham Bell to Frederick Trump.

If the H-1B system helps such people get here, we’re all for it. But it cannot exploit the new arrivals or disadvantage Americans trying to get ahead.