President Donald Trump has made clamping down on illegal immigration a pillar of his administration. Legal immigration is a completely different matter, however, and it shouldn't get tangled in the president's "America-first" mentality.
Highly skilled workers are in short supply in many U.S. fields, especially in the tech industry, and companies have turned to the H-1B visa program to attract talent from other countries — usually India and China. Numerous Detroit-area businesses also rely on outside workers who have the skills they need.
Each year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services opens a total of 85,000 H-1B visas, a number that hasn't changed in more than a decade.
The demand for these visas remains strong — far outweighing the supply — but a recent report from the Associated Press highlights challenges within the program that are making the process longer and more difficult for applicants. And more applications are getting denied.
If Trump really seeks to boost the economy, he should make sure his administration smooths out the visa program and expands the number of slots for qualified candidates.
In fact, in January, he promised this on Twitter: "H1-B holders in the United States can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship. We want to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the U.S."
Trump should follow through with that pledge. In the meantime, there are plenty of wrinkles in the program. Many stem from Trump's early "Buy American and Hire American" executive order that aimed to curtail the hiring of immigrants to boost U.S. workers.
Since then, the AP reports that additional orders and memos have done the following:
— "Allowed for greater discretion in denying applications without first requesting additional information from an applicant."
— Removed "the deference given to people seeking to renew their H-1Bs."
— "Raised concern that the government would revoke work permits for spouses of H-1B holders."
— "Rescinded the option of paying for faster application processing."
Such tactics will only serve to deter talented immigrants who have studied at American universities from staying in the U.S. and using their skills here.
Paul Winfree, the director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, says an argument against the visas is that they can drive down wages for all employees, as some employers will offer less pay to foreign workers who want entry to the U.S.
"The Trump administration is sensitive to these types of effects and these changes seem to be geared to cutting back on some of this by limiting the H-1B program to the highest skilled people," Winfree said in an email.
That may be true, but it shouldn't overshadow the benefits of giving U.S. companies access to highly skilled immigrants.
As Winfree notes, "Immigration through the H-1B program has also been shown to increase productivity and wages for other workers as well as reduce the prices of goods produced by those industries directly benefiting from immigration."
This is the kind of legal immigration the president should uphold.
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