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Will Donald Trump clamp down on H-1B visas?

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Experts: The next administration is unlikely to scrap the visa program, but reform is likely.

During the contentious and often vitriolic presidential election campaign that culminated in his electoral college victory on Tuesday, candidate Donald Trump had hit out against the H-1B visa program a number of times. After the Republican primary debate in Detroit March 3, the New York billionaire vowed to “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program” without any exceptions.

Now when he swears in as the 45th President of the United States in less than 10 weeks, will Trump remain true to his words and abolish the visa program that is enormously popular among tech giants in Silicon Valley, but a lightning rod for a large section of his base?

Unlike Trump’s many other campaign promises, scrapping of the visa program might not be very unpopular; nor will it be difficult to accomplish. For instance, building a wall on the US-Mexico border, one of Trump’s signature campaign issues, will require huge resources — unless America’s southern neighbor pays for it, which is very unlikely.

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Similarly, his proposed Muslim ban will complicate America’s Middle Eastern engagements. Also one doesn’t see Congress rubber-stamping such a move. Trump seems to have walked back on another major campaign promise, a complete repeal of Obamacare. The president-elect suggested in a Wall Street Journal interview on Friday that he is open to keeping some provision of the controversial healthcare program.

On the other hand, should he decide to scrap the H-1B program, which allows up to 85,000 highly skilled employees to work in the United States, Trump is unlikely to face the kind of backlash he might encounter on repealing Obamacare or implementing a Muslim ban.

In the past few years, Congress has placed a number of restrictions on employers that are dependent on H-1B workers. Already there are a several members of Congress who are in favor of placing further curbs on the visa program, including two outspoken critics in the Senate: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who heads chair of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee.

Nonetheless, despite the pressure from congressional critics and his base, some analysts in Washington believe that Trump is unlikely to act on it soon.

“I don’t think the H-1B visa program will be abolished anytime soon,” said Derek Scissors, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s unlikely to be a priority for the Trump administration as compared to healthcare, immigration, trade with China, and so on.”

Scissors, who is an expert on India’s economy and US economic relations with India, said that, to some extent, New Delhi can also play an influential role in the debate. Among the biggest beneficiaries of H-1B visa program are Indian tech works. Indian citizens receive 70 percent of the total H-1B visas issued worldwide.

“…Trump wants a strong relationship with India,” the AEI scholar said. “As time goes on and visa policy does become an issue, the Modi government can indicate that protecting the H-1B is a priority. If it does so, I think negotiations over technology visas will be friendly.”

Richard M. Rossow, Senior Fellow and Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, DC, also argued that acting on H-1B might not be as big a priority for the Trump administration as on illegal immigration.

“While President-Elect Trump targeted immigration as a key issue during his campaign, he was clearly focused on illegal immigration, stronger vetting for groups he saw as threatening, and low-skilled immigrants,” he said.

Rossow also pointed out that tech firms have “plenty of data showing the benefits of, and need for, high-skilled immigrants,” and because of that “there will be important counter-pressures against new curbs on technology worker immigration.”

A wild card in Rossow’s opinion will be the president-elect’s equation with Congress. “We do not know the type of working relationship Trump has with key Congressional leaders, which will have a powerful impact on his role to push legislative change of any type,” he said.

Another prominent expert on India, Lisa Curtis, a Senior Research Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, at this point, it is unclear how Trump will deal with the H1-B visa issue.

However, she added that the Trump administration “may end up reforming the program without scrapping it altogether.”

According to Curtis, the 45th president has to find a middle ground between scrapping the program and maintaining the status quo. “Given his global business background, [Trump] almost certainly recognizes the need for hi tech companies to access global talent to help their companies thrive,” she said. “But he also has made a commitment to protect American workers and has pointed out flaws and misuse of the H1-B visa program.”

In the past, the New York billionaire had favored Trump issuing more H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers to come and join the work force in the United States. His own companies have hired a number of foreign workers on H-1B.

In fact, his wife and soon-to-be-first lady, the Slovania-born Melania Trump, worked in New York as a model on H-1B for a number of years.

But like on many other issues, such as abortion and international trade — he was in favor of both — Trump changed the position on H-1B to appease his Republican base. During the campaign, he articulated his position on the visa in no uncertain terms. “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,” he said. “I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse.”

Now as Trump prepares to take charge as the commander-in-chief on January 20, 2017, the question is which version of Trump one will see in the White House: candidate Trump, or businessman Trump.


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