April 04, 2017
The Trump administration says its new guidelines targeting abuses in a controversial temporary visa program will protect U.S. high-tech workers. Boosting the fortunes of all working Americans, however, will require more ambitious thinking.
The new policy for H-1B visas is fairly limited. It makes it a bit harder for companies to hire low-paid computer programmers under the program. It singles out firms that use the visas heavily for enforcement raids. And it promises to “vigorously prosecute” companies that favor cheaper foreigners over U.S. workers in hiring. None of this is especially objectionable — and if the changes restore the credibility of the H-1B system, they’ll have served a worthwhile purpose.
The larger problem, however, will remain: how to bring more high-skilled immigrants into the U.S. The goal itself should be uncontroversial. High-tech companies rely on the H-1B program not simply to undercut wages, but because they have legitimate trouble filling their needs domestically. In addition, study after study has shown that skilled immigrants drive innovation, build new businesses, create jobs and increase demand, thus raising wages for U.S. workers more broadly.
Instead of focusing only on raids and threats, the administration should be working with Congress to clear more space for the “best and brightest,” as Trump has called them, under the current system. Various bills making their way through Congress aim to combat the practice of “bodyshopping,” where outsourcing companies fill up the H-1B quota with underpaid foreign workers. Settling on a permanent fix would make it easier for the most talented immigrants to win visas — and reassure them that they are welcome in the U.S.
Similarly, the White House should be working with Congress to find ways to shift the U.S. toward a more merit-based system of legal immigration. There would be far less need for temporary visas like the H-1B, and thus less scope for fraud and abuse, if the U.S. prioritized skills rather than family ties when issuing permanent residency. This can be done without reducing the number of immigrants overall.
Too much of the Trump administration’s rhetoric, and too many of its executive orders, treat immigration — even of legal, highly skilled workers — as something to be feared and restricted. In fact, the best way to strengthen the economy and improve the lot of most U.S. workers is to figure out a politically viable way to let more of these industrious newcomers into the country. That’s where most of the administration’s energies should be focused.
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