Trump Should Expand, not Restrict, H-1Bs

No matter your opinions of the Trump presidency, there is little denying that the economy is on the up. Last week’s announcement of 3% growth in the third quarter, low unemployment, and a roaring stock market are all working in concert to create an atmosphere of economic optimism. In fact, consumer confidence is the highest it's been in 17 years.

But while Trump’s management of the economy in the short term has thus far been solid, he is quietly tinkering with a program that is vital to promoting American economic leadership in the long term.

Specifically, the President is vowing to further restrict the country’s H-1B visa program, which grants special visas to foreign workers, particularly those in science and tech fields. The program is lauded by tech companies such as Facebook and Google as necessary to fill critical skills gaps and ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation.

Trump fired the first shots at the program in April when he signed the "Buy American, Hire American" executive order. Seven months later the administration is reloading. Per Axios:

With new policy guidance, foreign workers applying for visa extensions will face more scrutiny. The administration is making it clear that federal immigration officers can and should ask more questions to make sure only the best applicants are deemed eligible for work visas. It’s part of the administration’s broader efforts to crack down on H-1B and other company-sponsored visas that, it believes, are prone to abuse and take good-paying jobs away from Americans.

While such protectionism may look good on paper, in practice it's a recipe for disaster. If Trump truly wants to make America great again he would be wise to expand, rather than restrict, the H-1B program.

From 2008 to 2014 the number of home-grown students pursuing advanced degrees in science and engineering declined by 5 percent; their foreign counterparts, on the other hand, increased their numbers by 35 percent during that same period. Furthermore, there is evidence that American students are being outperformed by foreign student visa holders, and in cutthroat environs such as Silicon Valley, only the best and brightest will do.

The program certainly isn't perfect, as its critics accuse tech firms of using it to blatantly exploit cheap foreign labor, but H-1B visas may well be the only thing standing in the way of an American tech exodus. Domestic tech firms are already moving more and more of their operations overseas; in fact, IBM now has more employees in India than here in the US.

Restricting H-1Bs further would only accelerate this phenomenon, and therein lies the irony: by depriving such firms of highly talented, affordable foreign labor, Trump risks a replay of the very manufacturing crisis he railed against on the stump. It was wages that drove America’s manufacturing workforce overseas to less expensive markets such as China over the last few decades, and Trump should understand this better than anyone.

His fixation with an American manufacturing renaissance may well bring some temporary reprieve to a segment of the economy that has been largely left behind, but automation is rapidly relegating these once-prized jobs to the ash heap of history. The economies that will dominate the foreseeable future will be tech-driven, and America can either get on board or wave goodbye to the train.

Trump’s executive order will only create an artificial wage hike for tech labor, thus making America an unattractive environment for private-sector technology firms and driving up labor costs for the start-ups that drive American ingenuity.

For those unfamiliar with artificial wage hikes, their disastrous effects are evident in the West Coast’s experiments with increasing the minimum wage and the success of right-to-work states in drawing critical commerce away from their union counterparts. Trump’s targeting of the H-1B program will produce a similar outcome, allowing markets such as those in Asia to ride a wave of cheap tech labor to prosperity while American competitiveness declines.

Besides, these are the people we should be keeping.

The federal government will hand out a paltry 85,000 H-1Bs this year, well below the nearly 200,000 requested, demand that has slipped following Trump’s rhetoric.

For the majority of foreign students in science and engineering, this means returning home with top-notch American educations to advance the interests and agendas of their birth countries rather than our own.

While Trump’s promises to deport criminal aliens are understandable, the shooing away from law-abiding, highly skilled labor is a serious head-scratcher. Trump's heart may be in the right place here, but his head simply isn't. America has nothing to gain by outsourcing what may well be the most lucrative job market the world has ever seen.

To foster America’s economic and technological strength in the coming decades, the President must give American companies access to talented, affordable labor. Many, if not most of these workers, will stay and prosper, eventually repaying their debt with their ingenuity and incomes likely to one day reach the upper tax brackets.

Simply put, Trump must rethink his antipathy toward the H-1B program.

ArticleScott Jones