CATHERINE LUCEY and SCOTT BAUER
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — President Donald Trump hopes to revive the economic populism that helped drive his election campaign, signing an order Tuesday in Wisconsin to tighten rules governing when technology companies can bring in highly skilled foreign workers.
Trump toured the headquarters of the tool manufacturer Snap-on Inc., and then signed an order aimed at curbing what his administration says are hiring abuses in a visa program used by U.S. technology companies. Dubbed “Buy American, Hire American,” the directive follows a series of recent Trump reversals on economic policies.
Not everyone, though, is enamored of policies that could be perceived as protectionist. In the construction industry, a trades group has argued that “Buy American” requirements could add red tape to federal construction projects.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce sent earlier this month, officials with the Associated General Contractors of America warned the policies would “result in restrictive, punitive and complex procurement policies and those are seldom seen as the pathway to either increased competition or economic growth.”
For instance, the new federal procurement requirements could mean contractors have to create new administrative procedures to track the origins of the products they install. And if manufacturers couldn’t provide proof that the materials were made entirely in the U.S., contractors could be on the hook should there be an audit.
The order signed by the president on Tuesday targets the federal H-1B visa program, which the White House says undercuts U.S. workers by bringing in large numbers of cheaper, foreign workers, driving down wages. He was signing the directive at Snap-on Inc. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a state he narrowly carried in November on the strength of support from white, working-class voters. Trump currently has only a 41 percent approval rating in the state.
The tech industry has argued that the H-1B program is needed because it encourages students to stay in the U.S. after getting degrees in high-tech specialties — and companies can’t always find enough American workers with the experience and knowledge they need.
Trump has traveled to promote his agenda less than his recent predecessors. The White House spokesman Sean Spicer said he wanted to visit “a company that builds American-made tools with American workers.”
The new order would direct U.S. agencies to propose rules to prevent immigration fraud and abuse. They would also be asked to offer changes so that H-1B visas are awarded to the “most-skilled or highest-paid applicants,” according to administration officials who spoke only on the condition of anonymity despite the president’s frequent criticism of the use of anonymous sources.
The officials said the order also seeks to strengthen requirements that American-made products be used in certain federal construction projects, as well as in various federal grant-funded transportation projects. The commerce secretary will review how to close loopholes in existing rules and provide recommendations to the president.
The order specifically asks the secretary to review waivers of these rules in free-trade agreements. The waivers could be renegotiated or revoked if they are not benefiting the United States.
The trip brings Trump to the congressional district of House Speaker Paul Ryan, but Ryan is out of the country on a congressional trip.
Trump campaigned on populist promises to stand up to China, which he contended was manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs, and to eliminate the Export-Import Bank, which he billed as wasteful subsidy. Trump reversed himself on both positions in interviews last week.
And while he has long pledged to support American goods and workers, his own business record is mixed. Many Trump-branded products, like clothing, are made overseas. His businesses have also hired foreign workers, including at his Palm Beach, Florida, club.
Trump said at one point during the presidential campaign that he supported high-skilled visas, then said he opposed the program. At one debate, he said: “It’s very bad for our workers and it’s unfair for our workers. And we should end it.”
Possible changes could include higher fees for the visas, changing the wage scale for the program or other initiatives.
Critics say the program has been hijacked by staffing companies that use the visas to recruit foreigners — often from India — who will work for less than Americans. The staffing companies then sell their services to corporate clients.
The Daily Reporter staff writer Alex Zank and Associated Press writer Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.