How Trump's order on H-1B visas could affect Washington

Given the large tech workforce in Washington, the H1B visa program, which brings high skilled workers to the United States, is in high demand.

Making good on a campaign promise, President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American, Hire America” executive order on Tuesday, speaking to a crowd at manufacturer “Snap-on tools” headquarters in Wisconsin.

Related: Read full text of order

The president said he wants to prioritize American-made goods for federal contracts and tighten the rules around who gets H-1B visas, awarded to high-skilled foreign workers.

“With this action we're sending a strong signal to the world. We're going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first,” Trump said before signing the order. “Right now, widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing Americans workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to fill the same job for sometimes less pay.”

Trump referred to a claim that information-technology outsourcing companies are abusing the system by hiring workers for lower wages.

“There is some evidence that there may be some use of the H-1B not to bring top talent, but to outsource jobs. We’d actually support an evaluation and a review and reform of that,” said Michael Schutzler of Washington Technology Industry Association, a trade group that represents 9,000 tech companies across the state.

“We would support anything that would make it possible for the tech industry to be able to hire incrementally a few thousand more people," Schuztler continued. "Again, this is principally for research jobs and product launches that are really essential for helping to grow the industry and more jobs for Americans."

H-1B visas, which are awarded on a lottery system, are capped at 85,000 nationwide. That includes 10,000 in Washington state, according to the Department of Commerce. The top sponsors are tech giants Microsoft and Amazon locally.

Overall, IT and consulting company Infosys holds the largest number of H-1B visas, with nearly a third of the total visas issues, according to a site that tracks visas issued.  

Instead of a lottery, Trump wants to prioritize “the most skilled and highest paid applicants.”

However, Washington immigration attorney Dustin O’Quinn believes that would take congressional legislation, since the visa program is grounded in statute.

State experts who have reviewed the order say it’s messaging more than impact and doesn’t change anything immediately.

However, Joseph Williams, Governor Jay Inslee’s advisor on Washington’s tech sector, worries about the larger message it could send.

“We are potentially going to pay an opportunity cost,” Williams said, fearing it could signal that the United States may not be a welcoming country for high skilled foreign workers.

Executive order aside, both lawmakers and tech industry experts say a larger conversation must still be had about comprehensive immigration reform, as well as training up American workers.

“A really clever idea would be something like if you’re going to get an H-1B visa, then you hire an apprentice in an equivalent job and use the funding that comes off the (H-1B training fee) in the retraining of those workers,” Schutzler proposed. 

KING


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