Based on his inflammatory — and familiar — rhetoric regarding immigration and the "theft of American prosperity" that Donald Trump spouted in a campaign-style appearance in Wisconsin this week, one might assume the "America First" president was putting the hammer down on the controversial H-1B visa program that allows high-skilled foreign workers to enter the country temporarily to fill specialized jobs. But when the dust settled in front of the "Buy American Hire American sign" at the Snap-On Inc. plant in Kenosha, what Mr. Trump actually did was entirely reasonable — he signed an executive order essentially authorizing a study of the H-1B program.
It appears President Trump discovered that H-1B, like the Affordable Care Act and North Korea, is "complicated." The real challenge with the temporary visa program is not that it's a giveaway of American prosperity but that it's a flawed remedy to a real problem — the difficulty some domestic companies have in finding highly qualified individuals to fill jobs in certain high-tech, industrial and medical fields. Might it allow some companies to depress wages? That absolutely appears to happen in some cases. But the solution isn't to scrap H-1B, it's to strike the right balance between the legitimate needs of companies to fill jobs and protections for domestic workers from unfair competition.
Surely, the biggest flaw in H-1B is that there's little rhyme or reason in how those visas are granted. Because the program authorizes only 85,000 new visas each year and the number of applicants is far greater, selection boils down to a lottery. Quite a few of those visas inevitably fall to foreign-based outsourcing firms in countries like India. That doesn't seem quite in the spirit of a visa program designed as a stop-gap for U.S. companies that can't fill specialized jobs, it looks more like a way to reduce information technology costs (as a high percentage of H-1B visas often go to software engineers) as salaries in places like Silicon Valley continue to soar.
But the solution shouldn't require a rocket scientist to devise. It requires coming up with a better way to evaluate the merits of any H-1B application. That might involve, for example, giving greater priority to the most highly educated, skilled and paid applicants instead of simply demonstrating that you pay your industry's prevailing wage or that you advertised the job locally. After all, it's not much of an end-around of domestic hiring if the applicant from overseas is demonstrably better qualified and better compensated than anyone else in the job pool.
It would be a mistake, however, to simply slam the door on highly-educated foreign-born workers. That prospect is exactly what has high-tech industry officials most worried, and many expressed relief after President Trump signed his much more ho-hum order on Tuesday. If U.S.-based companies can't attract the best and brightest from around the world, the nation's leadership in technology will suffer. If anything, Mr. Trump ought to encourage H-1B visa holders (and there are now more than 600,000 of them) to seek U.S. citizenship and stay in this country permanently. Surely, these are among the most highly desirable immigrants one can imagine, as they are highly skilled individuals who work in critically important scientific fields. Such men and women should not face an arduous path to citizenship, they should be offered first-class seats on a premium limousine ride to citizenship.
Too bad Mr. Trump can't articulate the issue in anything but angry, nativist terms that only contribute to a widespread perception that Americans are getting cheated out of good jobs and good pay by immigrants — and legal ones at that. Blind outrage may have helped get the president elected last fall, but it's not going to help fix nuanced problems. Surely, the White House is learning those limits based on its apparent failures in health care reform and tax reform where ideas aren't all good or all bad (or even necessarily all-partisan).
The administration's recent turn toward moderation is a welcome trend (on China, on NATO and most recently, on the Obama administration nuclear deal with which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson now says Iran has complied), but it's still not clear if it's all a political choice or simply reality catching up with a president who has proven himself singularly ill-informed on many of the leading issues of the day. On H-1B, Mr. Trump has proven himself capable of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and that is, at least, a start.