Tougher H-1B visa rules could benefit Seattle-area tech companies

An executive order signed by President Trump on Tuesday orders a review of the H-1B visa program for highly skilled workers. It won’t have an immediate effect on the tech industry, but could benefit local tech giants and startups alike.

An executive order by President Donald Trump designed to restructure a visa program for highly skilled workers that is used largely by the tech industry will have little immediate effect, Seattle tech leaders said Tuesday.

It does signal tighter enforcement of high-tech visa applications ahead, but that may end up working in favor of local tech giants and startups alike.

The “Buy American and Hire American” order signed by Trump in Wisconsin on Tuesday afternoon orders several federal agencies to review the high-tech visa, or H-1B, program.

The Trump administration says it undercuts American workers by bringing in large numbers of cheaper foreign workers, who drive down U.S. wages. The executive order directs U.S. agencies to propose rules to prevent immigration fraud and abuse in the program.

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The tech industry has long said it relies on the H-1B program to fill job openings at their growing companies because there aren’t enough U.S. workers available with the specific talents that are needed.

Critics disagree, asserting that some companies use the high-tech visa program to bring in lower-paid workers who have the same skills as U.S. workers.

Many critics focus on outsourcing companies’ use of the program. The top three recipients of visas are outsourcing firms, who hire workers and contract them out to other companies. Their visas are usually for lower paid entry-level positions.

“Right now H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery and that’s wrong,” Trump said Tuesday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he toured tool manufacturer Snap-on.

Companies’ visa applications are put into a lottery that allocates 65,000 visas each year. An additional 20,000 visas are reserved for graduate students from U.S. universities.

Nearly 200,000 H-1B applications were submitted this year. That was down about 15 percent, or roughly 37,000 applications, from 2016. The numbers might have dropped this year because of greater scrutiny of the program. Or companies may have been discouraged by lottery results, which mean a less-than-30 percent chance of receiving a visa.

The visa-review announcement came at a jittery time for the White House, as Trump faces the 100th day of his presidency without much to show for it in the way of legislative accomplishment after the defeat of his health-care bill. And his two high-profile executive orders cracking down on immigration from predominantly Muslim nations have been stymied by the courts.

“This does nothing,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the Democratic leader. “Like all the other executive orders, it’s just words — he’s calling for new studies. It’s…

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