Executive order blocking immigration raises worries about Wisconsin workforce and visa-holders

President Trump’s executive order blocking immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries is raising worries about how a Trump presidency will affect Wisconsin’s workforce and visas that bring in skilled tech workers from overseas.

John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, says the Trump administration’s initial action isn’t likely to affect many in-state workers. He pointed to some Somali workers working in Wisconsin and Minnesota as potentially being affected, but said he was generally skeptical about economic impacts. But he says he’s “somewhat concerned” about restricting H-1B visas.

Kurt Bauer, (pictured here) president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, says WMC supports reforming the H-1B system to expand the number of visas given out. He adds that 64,000 H-1B visas is “probably not enough” for the growing needs of the American workforce, much less those of Wisconsin’s.

“Wisconsin has some of the best universities and colleges, public and private,” Bauer told WisBusiness.com this week. “We give [foreign students] the best education, and many want to stay here… But if we send them back to their countries, they are competing against us.”

He says that’s bad for the Wisconsin workforce, which had 6,414 H-1B visa applications certified in 2015. The average wage offer for these visa holders was $74,696, according to DOL’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification.

The current system for handing out H-1B visas is lottery-based, but Anne Smith, co-founder and co-director of the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic at the UW Law School, says that could change.

She says that under Trump, reforms could give highest priority to applicants deemed “most important.”

As it stands, the number of visa applications nationwide is much higher than the number of available visas, and efforts to further restrict the program would disproportionately affect those in the technology space, she says.

“Tech companies are worried about that,” Smith said. “There are companies throughout Wisconsin that sponsor H-1B visas–I think it would have an impact.”

A bipartisan bill recently introduced by U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin would “prioritize American workers and restore fairness in visa programs for skilled foreign workers.”

One problem with these visa programs is that “foreign outsourcing companies have used loopholes in the laws to displace qualified American workers and facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs,” according to a release from Grassley, from Iowa.

The bill would require U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to enforce a preferential system in which American workers are heavily prioritized. It says working conditions for Americans cannot be “adversely affected” by the hiring of an H-1B worker; nor can any American workers be replaced by visa holders.

These provisions fight against “well-documented” abuse of the system, according to the release.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this week that President Trump will be looking at reforming the H-1B program as part of the greater effort to reform immigration.

“I think there needs to be an adequately trained workforce before we start restricting our ability to get more trained workers,” Holevoet said, adding that science and engineering fields in particular would be affected.

Bauer also said President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership could spell trouble for the state.

“The Wisconsin economy needs trade,” Bauer said. “We need global engagement.”

Bauer said that by 2050, over half of the world’s population would be living in Asia, which he calls “a lucrative market.”

“Wisconsin companies should not be cut out there,” he said.

But Bauer also sees “numerous” opportunities for businesses under President Trump.

“We have the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world,” Bauer said. “We can change that–make it more competitive.”

He sees great benefit in rolling back the “mountain of regulation” that has been heaped on business owners by the Obama administration, and says WMC members have been happy with the prospects for the energy market under the new president.

“We are blessed to have coal, oil and natural gas,” Bauer said, adding that an “advanced manufacturing economy” cannot survive without taking full advantage of fossil fuels.

–By Alex Moe