Aug 18, 2015 - 2:30pm

Like His Wall, Trump’s High-Skill Immigration Plan Misses the Mark


Senior Director, Strategic Communications

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Donald Trump

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has started to outline the specifics of his plan to overhaul our immigration system. Some of his ideas are ones campaign followers have become plenty familiar with recently – most notably, Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexico border.

As we pointed out recently on Above the Fold, a wall wouldn’t solve our nation's border challenges. In short, the idea is based on flawed assumptions about our economy and our immigration system.

It turns out, so, too, are the candidate’s plans to alter our country’s high-skill immigration rules.

In a policy paper released over the weekend, Trump advocated for raising the prevailing wage for H-1B visas – a category of visa reserved for foreign workers with advanced degrees, generally in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. His position is based on the following reasoning:

We graduate two times more Americans with STEM degrees each year than find STEM jobs, yet as much as two-thirds of entry-level hiring for IT jobs is accomplished through the H-1B program... Raising the prevailing wage paid to H-1Bs will force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers in the U.S.

For starters, the notion that the U.S. graduates two times more Americans with STEM field degrees annually than can find STEM jobs is a real canard. Randel K. Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits policy, explains:

“Developing policy solutions regarding STEM in the immigration debate requires an awareness that businesses are talking about jobs filled by individuals with a Bachelor’s degree or higher while BLS data include jobs filled by individuals with other levels of education,” Johnson said.

In fact, more than 35 percent of positions that are classified as STEM jobs in the U.S. – including about half of computer and information technology jobs – require less than a bachelor’s degree, according to the report by the General Accountability Office on STEM education and the workforce.  In other words, as Johnson explained, “comparing levels of unemployment in STEM fields with the numbers of H-1B workers while including these non-degree jobs is like comparing apples to oranges.

It’s also worth noting that the unemployment rates for U.S.-born professionals in the most prominent STEM occupations are remarkably low. For instance, Johnson points out that in the field of mechanical engineering, the U.S.-born unemployment rate stands at 1.5 percent, while for electrical and electronic engineering, it was a mere 1.2 percent. For computer hardware engineers, it was barely higher, at 1.9 percent, and for aerospace engineers, the mark was an almost nonexistent 0.2 percent.

The point is, if there are so many STEM-trained Americans out of work and looking to fill our country’s surging demand for STEM jobs, why isn’t that reflected in the numbers? It simply doesn’t add up.

Next, Trump argues that U.S. companies should be required to more aggressively seek U.S. job candidates before turning to worker visa programs. In his newly released policy paper, he states that “too many visas, like the H-1B, have no such requirement,” later emphasizing that “we need to companies to hire from the domestic pool of unemployed.”

First, most visa classifications for short-, long- and indefinite-term foreign-born workers do in fact require employers to first go through a State Workforce Agency to post open jobs with their state’s job service before hiring immigrant labor.  This is true, for example, for H-2A and H-2B temporary worker categories and almost all employment-based green cards.  

The reason Congress decided, when it specifically addressed this issue in 1990, not to extend the same model to the H-1B program was to avoid a situation where the government was micromanaging private sector competitive recruitment processes for hires based on very specific talent searches. That is, what lawmakers understood was that high-skilled hires in the marketplace for professional staff is based on unique qualities like specific prior education, skills, professional experience and research.  

Instead, in the Immigration Act of 1990, a bipartisan group of lawmakers arrived at a more sensible, less heavy-handed means of protecting U.S. workers. Led by immigration policy leaders like Republican Congressman Lamar Smith and Senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Congressman Bruce Morrison and Senator Ted Kennedy, Congress decided to limit H-1B hires to situations where the U.S. Department of Labor certifies that all terms and conditions of employment (including salary) for the foreign workers are the exact same as those provided to American workers.

“This labor protection mechanism might have to be modernized, but is an effective means for ensuring that employers hire an H-1B worker based solely on the contribution that worker’s skills will make to the company,” said Amy Nice, executive director of immigration policy at the Chamber.

Finally, Trump suggests that “applicants for entry to the United States should be required to certify that they can pay for their own housing, healthcare and other needs before coming to the U.S.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this idea – except for the fact that it’s already the law.

Current law provides, and has long provided, that every single applicant for an immigrant visa to the United States certify that he or she can pay for her own housing, healthcare, and other needs before coming to the U.S. (see Sec. 213A of the Immigration and Nationality Act – 8 USC 1183A).

“Proposing to amend the law to require something that already is a mandate is not moving the immigration debate one iota,” Nice said.

While the Chamber and Above the Fold don’t engage in presidential politics, it’s important to weigh in on policy proposals that could have a big impact on the business community - and equally important to point out when the reasoning behind those proposals are misguided. Such is the case with both Trump’s wall and, as we learned this week, his plans to alter our nation’s high-skill immigration system.

“While one can have good faith disagreement over the details,” Johnson said, “it is clear that properly structured immigration reforms will both increase the nation’s security and promote economic growth.”

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About the Author

About the Author

J.D. Harrison
Senior Director, Strategic Communications

J.D. Harrison is the senior director for strategic communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.