On April 18, President Trump issued an executive order, “Buy American and Hire American,” in which he expressed a desire to overhaul the current H-1B program which grants visas to highly-skilled foreign workers who seek employment in specialized fields.

The order, though not specific in details, works in two parts: The first part, Buy American, mandates that a certain amount of goods and services for federal or federally-funded projects be American-made. The second part, Hire American, is designed to crack down on purported fraud and abuse in foreign worker visa programs, particularly the H-1B program.

As it relates to H-1B visas, the order asks the departments of State, Labor, Justice and Homeland Security to propose reforms that will help ensure H-1B visas are being awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries. The order echoes the claims that have long been made by those who wish to limit immigration which include purported abuses in the visa program, and American workers losing jobs to immigrants because companies can pay the foreign workers less. The order does not address many of the other studies which point to the benefits toward the broader economy or the innovation brought by H-1B visa holders.

Ultimately the order is very limited in what it can do, and the White House’s press briefing acknowledged that there will need to be both administrative and legislative changes to make significant changes to the H-1B program. Whether Congress has the desire or will to make these changes in unclear. According to the White House, changes that they would like considered include:

  • Increasing fees for H-1B visas
  • Adjustments to the wage scale
  • Taking a more “vigorous” stance on enforcing “gross and egregious” violations of the program
  • Changing the lottery system to give master’s degree holders an advantage

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services awards 65,000 H-1B visas per fiscal year in addition to 20,000 visas specifically for individuals who hold advanced degrees. The visas are good for three years at a time and can be renewed once to be used for a total of six years. Many organizations, from tech companies to universities and hospitals, use the program to sponsor foreign workers in specialty occupations.

As I’ve discussed previously, there can be misconceptions about skilled immigrants and foreign worker visa programs. As I wrote in that blog post, in my experience, employers utilize the immigration system to enhance competitiveness, supplement the overall skill of the workforce, and fill positions where there are skill gaps.

At this stage, there are not firm plans in place to make the changes asked for in the executive order.  However, as plans for reform become more concrete, I will keep you updated on how the H-1B visa program, and other foreign worker visa programs, are likely to change. If you have questions about how this executive order could impact you or your company, please give me a call.

Brad Hendrick heads the immigration law practice group at Caplan and Earnest LLC. He may be reached at bhendrick@celaw.com or 303-443-8010.