President-elect Donald Trump is vowing to crack down on federal visa programs that let companies fill U.S. jobs with foreign workers, a move that could affect Charlotte-area employers ranging from banks to healthcare providers to information technology firms.
In a Facebook video outlining policy plans for his first 100 days, Trump said he would direct the U.S. Department of Labor “to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker.” Trump’s latest comments are creating concerns in Charlotte and elsewhere about companies’ future access to H-1B visas, a 26-year-old program designed to help companies fill highly skilled jobs with foreign workers.
“I personally am terrified for what the Trump administration could mean for H-1B visas and access to them,” said Charlotte-based immigration attorney Onyema Ezeh. He said some local CEOs of small companies have already contacted him fretting over what might happen to the visas.
“They’re really worried,” Ezeh said. “The threat of the H-1B visas ... being limited is a real one, and one that would hurt companies. And that’s why they’re having sleepless nights at this point.”
Nationwide, the H-1B program has become a political flashpoint. In Charlotte, U.S. workers, especially in technology roles, have blasted the program as a vehicle for companies to fire Americans – and replace them with cheap foreign workers sometimes supplied by large outsourcing firms. Bank of America and Wells Fargo are among companies that have relied on visa workers to fill roles in Charlotte.
Yet Trump has sent mixed signals about the visas – making it hard to predict the changes he might pursue. His Facebook video didn’t mention H-1B visas specifically, though in a March debate he called it “very, very bad.” In other debates, though, he cited a need for skilled workers in the U.S. His campaign website earlier this year included specific mentions of H-1B, but those mentions have since disappeared.
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, could not be immediately reached for comment.
H-1B supporters, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have argued the temporary visas help employers fill highly-skilled jobs that draw too few qualified applicants. In particular, visa supporters often cite a large and growing scarcity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, workers in the U.S.
In Charlotte, employers’ reliance on visa workers, many of whom come from India, has put some American employees on edge about their own job security. In some cases, fired Americans have told the Observer they had to train their foreign replacements during their final days of employment as a condition for receiving severance.
Demand for H-1B workers is growing especially fast in Charlotte. Last year alone, hundreds of local employers filed initial applications for more than 16,500 of the visa workers, according to an Observer analysis earlier this year.
That’s a 39 percent increase from the year before – surpassing the roughly 25 percent increase nationwide.
In presidential debates this year, Trump offered comments on H-1B visas that at times appeared contradictory.
During a Republican debate in March, the candidate said he was softening his position on visa workers “because we have to have talented people in this country.”
“I’m changing. I’m changing,” he said at the time. “We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in.”
At another Republican debate the following week, Trump called the H-1B program “very, very bad for workers” and said “we should end it.” At that same debate, Trump cited endorsements he had recently received from two former Walt Disney Co. tech employees who said they were forced to train foreign replacements.
During an October 2015 debate with Republican challengers, Trump responded to a question about whether he supported H-1B visas by saying he was “in favor of people coming into this country legally.”
“As far as the visas are concerned, if we need people ... it’s fine,” he said at the time.
Trump’s morphing views have not gone unnoticed by industry officials.
“We heard mixed comments from the president-elect during the campaign and so forth about his views on this topic,” said Brooks Raiford, president of the North Carolina Technology Association.
“He certainly has a preference for companies being either encouraged or perhaps even required to make a genuine effort to fill positions from inside the country,” Raiford said. “I don’t know what that would look like in terms of policy or how you would enforce it.”
Earlier this month, Trump named H-1B critic and firebrand Jeff Sessions to his cabinet, nominating the Alabama Republican senator for attorney general. Among other things, Sessions has sought to slash the number of visas awarded each year and has called claims of a shortage of qualified Americans with STEM degrees a “hoax.”
Banks could feel effects
Any visa restrictions could prove challenging for global outsourcing companies, many of which provide other businesses with information technology services.
Last year, outsourcing firms Cognizant, Infosys, Capgemini and Accenture were among top employers seeking H-1B visa workers in Charlotte. Combined, those companies filed initial visa applications for more than 6,000 workers.
Ron Hira, a Howard University professor who has criticized outsourcing companies as exploiting visa programs to bring in cheaper workers, said such firms stand to lose the most from restrictions. That in turn could affect Charlotte’s banking sector, which relies heavily on outsourcing companies, he said.
“They’re certainly big customers of those firms,” Hira said. “Their argument would be, this is saving money. Of course, it’s at the expense of American workers.”
By employing large numbers of visa workers, outsourcing companies can legally bypass a requirement not to displace American workers, so long as the visa worker has a master’s degree or is paid at least $60,000 a year. Critics say that compensation level is a low bar for American technology workers.
Critics say some outsourcing companies have used the H-1B program to ultimately ship the U.S. jobs to other countries, as a way to increase the firms’ profits.
Nationwide, demand for the visas has far outstripped supply. In recent years, the federal government has had to hold a computer-run lottery to award the visas, which Congress caps annually at 85,000.
Charlotte-based Bank of America and San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which are among companies that have applied for visa workers in Charlotte, declined to comment. Last year, Bank of America ranked ninth among companies in Charlotte by number of H-1B visa workers requested in initial applications.
In addition to banking, manufacturing is a sector in Charlotte facing difficulty finding skilled workers, Ezeh, the immigration attorney, said.
“Companies are just not finding the right skill or the right match with local candidates and they’re having to reach outside the borders of the country,” he said. He acknowledged the program could be vulnerable to abuse, but said it fills a legitimate need when used properly.
Hira, the Howard University professor, said the Trump administration can take steps on its own to rein in visa abuse, such as by stepping up enforcement action. Other changes, such as statutory requirements, would need approvals from Congress, which is divided on the topic, he said.
“There’s people on the Republican side that have fought reform. There are people on the Democrat side that have fought reform,” Hira said. “Each party’s split on this issue.”
Trump’s latest comments show the president is following up on “an important issue,” Hira said. “What shape it takes we will see.”