US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that seeks to make changes to a visa programme that brings in highly skilled workers.
The time-limited H-1B visas for skilled workers, which are sought by technology giants, are meant for scientists, engineers and computer programmers. They are an important gateway for many attracted by tech hubs across the country.
But the White House said the programme is undercutting American workers by bringing in cheaper labour and that some tech companies are using it to hire large numbers of workers and drive down wages.
Trump went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday where he signed an order dubbed “Buy American, Hire American”, ordering the Labour, Justice and Homeland Security Departments to propose reforms to the visa programme to prevent immigration fraud and abuse.
“We are sending a powerful signal to the world that we are going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first,” Trump said just before signing the order on a visit to a local
“Right now H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery and that’s wrong. Instead, they should be given to the most skilled and highest paid applicants and they should never, ever be used to replace Americans.”
Administration officials said that the order seeks to strengthen requirements that US-made products be used in certain federal construction projects, as well as in various federal transportation grant-funded projects.
The officials said the commerce secretary will review how to close loopholes in enforcing the existing rules and provide recommendations to the president.
The order specifically asks the secretary to review waivers of these rules that exist in free-trade agreements.
The Trump administration said that if the waivers are not benefiting the US they will be “renegotiated or revoked”.
During his campaign, Trump said he supported high-skilled visas but later came out against them.
At one debate, he called for fully ending the programme, saying: “It’s very bad for our workers and it’s unfair for our workers. And we should end it.”
“I think what we’re looking at here is largely symbolic,” New York-based lawyer Danielle Mclaughlin told Al Jazeera.
“On April 29, Trump will be 100 days in office, and one of the promises he made was … that he would make sure that Americans were hiring Americans and that they were buying American.”
About 85,000 H-1B visas are distributed annually by lottery. Many go to technology companies, which argue that the US has a shortage of skilled technology workers.
The US president cannot, by a simple decree, change the number of visas allocated.
But the White House hopes that signing the decree will build momentum before a possible legislative reform.
Critics say the programme has been hijacked by staffing companies that use the visas to import foreigners who will work for less than Americans.
The staffing companies then sell their services to corporate clients who use them to outsource tech work.
Employers from Walt Disney World to the University of California in San Francisco have laid off their tech employees and replaced them with H-1B visa holders.
The tech industry has argued that the H-1B programme is needed because it encourages students to stay in the US after getting degrees in high-tech specialties, and that they can not always find enough American workers with the skills they need.