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CEOs on Notice as Trump Heralds Skilled Migration Crackdown

Though details are yet to emerge, the technology industry is particularly concerned about some ideas expressed by White House officials.

One of many immigration protests

The scores of companies that hire foreign workers on H-1B temporary visas have been put on notice by a new executive order, though no concrete changes to existing policy have been suggested by the president. At least not yet.

Signed on Tuesday, the order called on the departments of Labor, Homeland Security and State to study the laws and suggest reforms where appropriate “to protect the interests of United States workers”.

The government currently uses a lottery system to award 65,000 of the visas each year and randomly offers another 20,000 to graduate student workers. They are supposed to be issued to highly-skilled individuals with specialist knowledge in disciplines such as science and engineering. Critics say too many end up going to lower-paid technology workers at outsourcing firms, dragging down wages across the board.

Numerous possible changes to the system have been suggested by White House officials, including dropping the lottery system and only awarding visas based on merit. The bar also could be raised on the minimum wage level that would qualify for a visa or the type of applicable degree.

“WE NEED TO DELIVER VALUE TO OUR CUSTOMERS INDEPENDENT OF VISAS. WE SHOULD HAVE A MIX OF THE BEST LOCAL AND GLOBAL TALENT.”

Tata Consulting CEO Rajesh Gopinathan said the current system was fair and that some of the proposed changes being discussed “in their extreme form” would be discriminatory. “It has been fair in the past,” he told India’s PTI news agency. “There is no reason for us to assume that it will not be fair in the future. So, let’s deal with what’s on the ground and let’s go step by step.”

Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka warned last week that policy changes could hurt the company’s earnings, though he wasn’t necessarily adverse to reform. “I myself am a U.S. citizen and the role of visas in our industry has become too strong,” he said on an earnings call. “We need to deliver value to our customers independent of visas. Of course we need to comply with regulations, but we should have a mix of the best local and global talent.”

A move to a more merit-based system could be a positive development for the tech sector because it would attract more people with advanced science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills, said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information and Technology and Innovation Foundation, a technology industry group.

Still, Atkinson said some other ideas that have been suggested, such as requiring applicants to advertise jobs openings for longer to prove no U.S. workers were available could hurt the industry. “Companies get opportunities, and they have to jump on them,” he said. “Delaying them for too long would be bad for innovation, job creation and growth.”

Ending a recent Obama administration move to allow the spouses of H-1B visa holders to also work in the U.S. could reduce the quality of foreign applicants, he warned. “We hope the goal of President Trump’s executive order on the H-1B program is ‘mend it, don’t end it'”.

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About Ross Kelly

Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.