As word leaked out Tuesday about President Donald Trump’s executive order, which authorizes further study of a government program that allows U.S. companies to hire foreign workers, Austin companies said they were hoping the administration would hear their pleas to bring in more foreign workers.
At an event at Wisconsin on Tuesday, Trump announced his “Buy American, Hire American” order, which asks for a review of the H-1B visa program. Trump’s aim is to curb the number of workers hired through this program.
The president has said that hiring foreign workers harms American workers and drives down wages.
The companies that hire H-1B workers, however, defend it as a critical recruitment tool.
Austin immigration attorney Jason Finkelman said Trump’s executive order would not have a large impact on H-1B visas because it takes an act of Congress to change the number of visas awarded annually.
“It’s more of a PR stunt than it is policy,” Finkelman said. “To me, this is probably showing his commitment to fulfilling his promises to protect American workers, but nothing will be done changing the fundamental elements of issuing visas.”
Finkelman said the order itself instructs four different agencies to propose reforms to the work visa programs, which could include raising fees or changes to how the lottery process is weighted.
In Texas,there are 43,340 people here on H-1B visas, according to Department of Homeland Security data from 2015. That’s about half the number of H-1B visas in California, according to federal data.
The H-1B visa program allows U.S. employers to bring in 65,000 high-skilled workers each fiscal year, with another 20,000 visas available for advanced-degree students.
Though there was no data available on the number of H-1B visa workers in the Austin metro area, several companies based in Central Texas have acknowledged that they use the program to hire foreign workers.
It’s particularly popular with tech companies, such as Advanced Micro Devices, Silicon Labs or Dell Technologies. AMD, for instance, says it employs about 100 H-1B visa workers in Austin.
“The H-1B program, although not perfect, is an integral part of the American economy,” said Drew Scheberle, senior vice president of business policy for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. He said the chamber is encouraged that the president is “taking steps to ensure the program isn’t abused.”
But Scheberle said the chamber supports an increase in the number of H-1B workers by raising the yearly quota, currently set at 85,000.
“We hope the administration and Congress will visit ways to return the H-1B quota to its higher, turn-of-the-century levels,” Scheberle said.
An executive with Silicon Labs, a local chipmaker, said there aren’t enough U.S. workers to fill critical engineering roles. Silicon Labs employs about 650 people in Austin and has about 75 workers using H-1B visas, according to the company.
“Silicon Labs leverages the H-1B visa program to recruit top technical talent from all over the world,” said Silicon Labs chief marketing officer Michele Grieshaber. “We are waiting to see how the administration will implement the executive order and hope it will not impede our ability to attract the best and brightest engineers.”
Round Rock-based Dell Technologies said in a written statement that the company is also hoping for an increase in caps on the H-1B program. Dell spokeswoman Lauren Lee said the company is committed to operating a “global business that harnesses the power of the best and brightest talent., regardless of their country of origin.”
The PC maker and IT solutions provider said it supports policies that allow high-skilled workers to “stay in the country and help U.S. companies remain globally competitive.”
Dell will not disclose the size of its Austin workforce, but chamber data estimates Dell employs about 13,000 in the Austin area.
Some foreign workers could see Trump’s executive order as a sign they are not welcome in the U.S., according to Finkelman, the immigration attorney.
“It’s a big deal in our city, which depends so much on this highly skilled labor,” Finkelman said. “You’ve got UT attracting smart students from all over the world, and we need that talent. But they might just say, ‘Thank you for my education, U.S., goodbye.’”
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