Donald Trump made clear Monday that he’s focused on immigrant visa programs — and immigration advocates and tech leaders are paying close attention.
In a short video address this week, Trump listed the issue as a priority for his first 100 days in office: He said he will “direct the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker.”
Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, said that he was “encouraged” by what Trump didn’t mention. “What he didn’t say was that he was going to close the door to skilled immigrants,” he told CNNMoney.
Most important to the tech community is the H-1B visa program, the most common pathway for highly-skilled workers from other countries. There is an annual cap of just 85,000 H-1B visas per year, and they are doled out through a lottery system.
Companies that bring in H-1B workers are supposed to pay fair wages, so American workers aren’t at a disadvantage. But there some who’ve misused the system.
Shell companies can secure H-1Bs for workers for entry level jobs, and then farm out those employees to companies to take on higher level positions — but are still paid for the lower level job.
Trump’s view on the role of high-skilled immigrants is tough to pin down.
In August 2015, Trump criticized advocacy efforts pushing to increase the H-1B annual cap, citing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is a co-creator of the immigration reform advocacy group FWD.us. “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator, Marco Rubio, has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities,” he said.
But in an interview after the November 2015 Paris attacks, resurfaced last week by the Washington Post, Trump spoke of the need to keep educated people in the country when they come from elsewhere to go to American schools. “You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said.
Trump’s attorney general pick, Senator Jeff Sessions, has been more critical of the H-1B program, going so far as referring to the shortage of qualified Americans for STEM positions as a “hoax” in his immigration primer.
Sessions claims there is a surplus of American labor being passed over for jobs by foreigners. He introduced legislation in 2015 to reform the H-1B program.
One bill, coauthored by Senator Bill Nelson, aimed to slash 15,000 visas from the annual pool. A separate bill, introduced with Senator Ted Cruz, called for a minimum salary floor for all H-1B holders of $110,000 or the equivalent of how much an American was paid in the role.
Wadhwa said he welcomes Trump’s proposal to clean up existing programs. “Every government program is subject to abuse.” He said that some reform could be good for American tech companies.
With a limited annual supply of H-1B visas, cracking down on those abusing the system could create more room for fair players.
David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors the tightening of immigration laws, said he’s unsure if Trump and his team actually “want to change the system” as “opposed to cleaning it up.”
According to Wadhwa, there’s a bigger concern when it comes to abuse: The EB-5 visa. That’s an investor visa that requires a minimum $500,000 investment and the creation of 10 fulltime jobs for U.S. workers.
Trump’s own real estate has reportedly benefited from investors on EB-5 visas. The Trump name was licensed to a Jersey City skyscraper developed by Kushner Companies, run by Trump’s son-in-law and campaign adviser Jared Kushner.
The construction was financed by wealthy Chinese seeking EB-5 visas.
The EB-5 is exempt from the Department of Labor.
Immigration attorney Tahmina Watson said it’s important that the tech industry speaks up about the fact that H-1Bs are being used to fill shortages, not to skirt paying fair wages.
While there may be some misuse of H-1Bs, Watson said there’s still a very real need for foreign talent in the U.S.
“My hope is that if he is indeed the businessman he claims, then he will put the economy first and realize immigration is good for the economy,” Watson said.
H-1Bs given out to foreigners between 2010 and 2013 are expected to create more than 700,000 jobs for U.S. born workers by 2020, according to a 2015 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, an immigration reform think tank.
FWD.Us declined to comment on Trump’s remarks on Monday, although a spokeswoman noted that the Department of Labor already conducts investigations to cut down on abuse.
The Department of Labor and Trump’s transition team did not immediately return requests for comment.