‘Buy American, Hire American’ rhetoric risks eroding the attractiveness of the US as a study destination, educators warned as Donald Trump’s newest executive order marked the administration taking its first steps towards H-1B visa reform.
Though they acknowledged that a review of the skilled worker system is necessary, stakeholders labelled the surrounding rhetoric wrongheaded and populist.
Overhauling the skilled worker route is a key tenet of the executive order that Trump signed yesterday. In it, he instructs the heads of the Departments of Labor, Justice, State and Homeland Security to suggest ways to curb abuse of the system.
“Widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing American workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to fill the same job for sometimes less pay,” Trump said ahead of signing the order yesterday.
Trump took aim at the lottery by which H-1B visas, a key route to post-study work for foreign graduates, are allocated.
“Right now, H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery – and that’s wrong,” he said.
“Instead, they should be given to the most-skilled and highest-paid applicants, and they should never, ever be used to replace Americans.”
Addressing reporters at a press briefing later in the day, a senior administration official said the lottery allocation favours large companies flooding the system with applications for “a very large number of visas… and then they’ll get the lion’s share of visas”.
Proposed reforms should also take into account wages in order to return the H-1B visa program to its “original state of intent” as a skilled labour program, the official said.
“Many people will be surprised to know that about 80% of H-1B workers are paid less than the median wage in their fields,” they noted.
Speaking with The PIE News, Sonya Singh, managing director of India-based SIEC, is one of many in the sector who have long understood the flaws in the H-1B system.
“In my opinion, the changes are required in the H-1B visa program to address the issues of abuse and misuse of the visa program, but to link it to the Trump Slogan of ‘Buy American, Hire American’ seems to be a sweeping populist statement rather than a deeply assessed or thought about policy,” she commented.
“The statement has a racist tone and it will surely affect the future of America as an attractive study destination,” she continued. “Genuine students who look forward to some work experience in the US after finishing their studies are being put off every day by these statements.”
Eddie West, director of international programs at UC Berkeley Extension, echoed that the system “deserves review”.
“What’s more, adopting a more merit-based approach to adjudicating applications doesn’t strike me as a bad idea per se,” he said.
“However, in terms of international student mobility to the US, the executive order could deal another negative blow, at least in the short-term,” he added. “The executive order is introducing more uncertainty… that’s likely to deter students from opting to study in the US, and make them look toward more hospitable and stable destinations, like Canada.”
Sushil Sukhwani, director at India-based Edwise, said the real problem at the moment is the fear of the unknown.
“Announcements such as this, which are not clear, create anxiety amongst students as they are unable to understand the factual position,” he said. “This has a negative impact on the prospective student applications.”
The medium- to long-term impact of the executive order will depend to a great degree on the policies federal agencies implement in response. A policy that favours graduates from US universities, for example, would likely be good news for the higher education sector.
In the current system, 20,000 visas are reserved for international students with master’s degrees, which are exempt from salary thresholds. International students seeking their first graduate job may miss out if this exemption is lost or if the salary threshold rises, said Rahul Choudaha, co-founder and CEO of interEDGE.org, which specialises in international student career success.
However, Roger Brindley, vice president of the University of South Florida’s USF World division, pointed out that the executive order appears to be targeting “lower paid foreign nationals who are alleged to be denying employment to American workers”, and so may not directly affect foreign postgraduate students.
“The students who are graduating with a postgraduate or doctoral degree in engineering are looking for those middle, upper management jobs that we do not believe will be directly affected by that executive order,” he said.
“The students we are bringing to the University of South Florida, we expect, will have ample opportunity to seek H-1B visas in those higher skilled categories,” he added, given that foreign talent is needed to fill skills gaps in the US labour market in some industries, such as IT.
Still, Canada and Australia are likely to benefit from the policy as students who are seeking post-study work or immigration opportunities “consider other options”, predicted Ravi Lochan Singh, managing director of Global Reach.
However, he was nevertheless optimistic the US will remain an attractive study destination.
“The US will remain the first option for students seeking research and high end universities,” he explained. “We must remember that the best universities are in the US.”