For a decade, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin has wanted to reform a program that is alternatively seen as a necessary way for technology companies to hire technical experts and a boondoggle that outsourcers use to exploit foreign labor. Durbin, a high-ranking Democrat, is no fan of Donald Trump, but he saw November’s election as a sign that changes were imminent. Now, six weeks into the Trump administration, he’s losing patience.
On Friday morning, the senator from Illinois wrote a letter to the president urging him to follow through on a promised crackdown before the end of the month.
The urgency comes in part from a looming deadline. Every year in early April, employers enter a lottery to secure special “H-1B” visas allowing them to hire guest workers. There are 85,000 available, 20,000 of which are set aside for people with advanced degrees, and demand for these visas far outpaces supply. Tech giants like Microsoft Corp., Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and Amazon.com.Inc. apply for thousands, but the largest recipients are IT firms that pay relatively low wages and often displace American workers.
The H-1B visa has become a key issue in the tense relationship between U.S. technology companies and the new White House. The industry wants access to smart immigrant workers, while Trump wants to prioritize American workers. When he signed an executive order prohibiting entry by people from seven majority-Muslim nations for 90 days, many tech companies argued against it in court and thousands of Google employees protested.
Durbin has repeatedly introduced legislation to overhaul the H-1B program. A bill he introduced this year with U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, would prioritize employers that pay higher wages and hire workers with advanced science and engineering degrees from U.S. universities.
On Friday, Durbin asked Trump to take the same approach when considering this year’s crop of visa applications, which could be done through an executive order.
“If you do not take action in the next few weeks, outsourcers will secure the right to import tens of thousands of low-wage foreign guest workers to replace American workers,” Durbin wrote in the letter.
White House spokesman Michael Short said the H-1B visa program “is an issue we are closely and carefully looking at.” He also pointed to comments Reed Cordish, an adviser to Trump on tech initiatives, made to The Wall Street Journal. While the administration believes there have been “flaws” in the visa program for high-skilled workers, changes can be made “in a way that supports what these [high-tech] companies currently need,” Cordish told the newspaper in February.
Durbin seems aware of the awkward position he’s putting himself in by calling for a crackdown from a Republican president with tough views on immigrants. His letter scolds the president for poisoning the immigration debate with “cruel and un-American” policies. A spokesperson for Durbin says the senator hasn’t directly discussed immigration policy with the White House before this point.
This isn’t the first suggestion that the Trump administration do something about this year’s H-1B lottery system while Congress works on a more permanent solution. Lobbyist Bruce Morrison, who helped create the H-1B program as a member of Congress, met with Trump’s transition team to suggest how to use executive actions immediately upon taking office to change the system.
An earlier attempt at H-1B reform created a separate category for companies with higher proportions of H-1B workers, putting additional requirements on those firms. Morrison proposed that the White House give priority to companies that don’t fall into that category.
“Effectively, dependent companies wouldn’t get any visas, which is fine because that’s where the outsourcers are,” he said. One exception would be Facebook, the most prominent U.S. technology firm that is officially an H-1B dependent company, with more than 15 percent of its U.S.-based staff in the program.
The Trump administration seems receptive. The fear of Americans losing their jobs to international competition is a cornerstone of the president’s message.
“The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” said Trump in a statement last spring. “I will end forever the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program.”
Some companies have held off on preparing H-1B applications for this year’s lottery out of fear that Trump would somehow undermine the program, says Dick Burke, Chief Executive Officer of Envoy Global Inc., which helps about 1,000 companies navigate the U.S. immigration system.
Michael Hayes, government affairs manager for the Consumer Technology Association, expressed concern that the White House could undermine more permanent reform by rushing out an executive order on the program.
Even if this year’s H-1B lottery proceeds unchanged, there’s support in Congress to overhaul the program. On Thursday, three House members introduced a bill that mirrors Durbin and Grassley’s proposal. Two other bills introduced this year would tweak the program to punish outsourcing firms while trying to protect U.S. tech companies.
Similar proposals have floated around Washington for years. Much to the frustration of people like Durbin, they’ve rarely gotten much further than that.