Trump’s Next Move on Immigration Could Strike Closer to Home for Silicon Valley

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks after signing executive orders in the Hall of Heroes at the Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. Trump signed an executive action on Friday to establish new vetting procedures for some people seeking to enter the U.S., saying the measure would prevent terrorists from being admitted into the country. (Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg)

President Donald Trump’s clash with Silicon Valley over immigration is about to become even more contentious.

After the new president banned refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Microsoft and others railed against the move, saying it violated the country’s principles and risked disrupting its engine of innovation. Trump’s next steps could strike even closer to home: His administration has drafted an executive order aimed at overhauling the work-visa programs technology companies depend on to hire tens of thousands of employees each year.

If implemented, the reforms could shift the way American companies like Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. recruit talent and force wholesale changes at Indian companies such as Infosys Ltd. and Wipro Ltd. Businesses would have to try to hire Americans first and if they recruit foreign workers, priority would be given to the most highly paid.

“Our country’s immigration policies should be designed and implemented to serve, first and foremost, the U.S. national interest,” the draft proposal reads, according to a copy reviewed by Bloomberg. “Visa programs for foreign workers … should be administered in a manner that protects the civil rights of American workers and current lawful residents, and that prioritizes the protection of American workers — our forgotten working people — and the jobs they hold.”

The foreign work visas were originally established to help U.S. companies recruit from abroad when they couldn’t find qualified local workers. In many cases, the companies are hiring for highly technical positions in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. But in recent years, there have been allegations the programs have been abused to bring in cheaper workers from overseas to fill jobs that otherwise may go to Americans. The top recipients of the H-1B visas are outsourcers, primarily from India, who run the technology departments of large corporations with largely imported staff.

“Immigrant STEM workers have contributed an outsize share to founding new companies, getting patents, and helping build up American companies, which in turn because of their success have created tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of jobs,” said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who does research in labor markets. “Discouraging such people to apply for visas to enter the United States to work — I can’t imagine how that can be considered to be in the American national interest.”

The Trump administration did not respond to a request for comment on the draft. The proposal is consistent with the president’s public comments on pushing companies to add more jobs to the U.S., from auto manufacturing to technology.

It’s not clear how much force the executive order would have if it is signed by the president. Congress is also working on visa reforms and the parties will have to cooperate to pass new laws. Zoe Lofgren, a Democratic congresswoman from California, introduced a bill last week to tighten requirements for the H-1B work visa program.

“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,” Lofgren said in a statement.

India’s technology companies, led by Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Infosys and Wipro, have argued they are helping corporations become more competitive by handling their technology operations with specialized staff. They also contend the visa programs allow them to keep jobs in the U.S. and that if they have to pay more for staff, they will handle more of the work remotely from less expensive markets like India.

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SOURCE: Bloomberg, Peter Elstrom and Saritha Rai