President Donald Trump’s push to change a visa program for foreign workers could affect employers in the Kansas City region who rely on the program for highly skilled workers.
Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that calls for a multi-agency review of the H-1B visa program, which allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers for specialty occupations.
Trump’s order, which outlines “Buy American” and “Hire American” policy goals, does not by itself enact any changes to the program but it opens the door for the administration to pursue greater restrictions in the future.
“What is changing is the tone,” said Mira Mdivani, an Overland Park attorney who specializes in immigration law. “And that is very important because the tone signals that at the very top we don’t have understanding that this benefits our economy.”
Trump said Tuesday the visa program “should include only the most skilled and highest-paid applicants and should never, ever be used to replace American workers.”
Kansas City-area lawmakers from both parties said they supported Trump’s efforts to scrutinize the program.
“There is virtually no disagreement among the informed that H-1B reform is needed,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said in a statement.
“Bringing ‘highly skilled’ foreign workers into the U.S. is not, in and of itself, bad, however I strongly oppose any attempt to use the H-1B program to avoid paying Americans below the market compensation levels,” Cleaver said. “If the U.S. is not producing the needed ‘highly skilled’ workers for our technology industry, then perhaps we need to do a better job at STEM education.”
Mdivani said the problem with the program isn’t that the U.S. grants too many visas, it’s that it grants too few. Just 85,000 H-1B visas are granted annually, but applications number around 200,000, she said.
The applications, which are selected by a lottery, are submitted by employers rather than workers.
Mdivani said companies that don’t get approval for the visas often end up outsourcing those jobs to Canada “and other countries that have more reasonable immigration policies,” costing the U.S. the benefits that come from those workers paying taxes and spending their wages in the U.S.
A wide variety of companies use the program, but in recent years it has been seen as a key tool of the tech industry. Roughly 100 of the 2,800 employees at Garmin’s Olathe campus hold H-1B visas, according to Ted Gartner, a spokesman for the company, which specializes in GPS technology.
“Because no changes have been recommended yet, we are unable to comment on how any rule change may or may not affect us,” Gartner said in an email. “The H-1B program is but one tool in the recruitment toolbox for Garmin in our ongoing effort to hire highly skilled engineering talent.”
Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32-year-old Garmin employee from India who was shot and killed February in Olathe, was living in the country on an H-1B visa. Alok Madasani, who was wounded in the same shooting, also holds a visa through the same program.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican whose district includes Garmin, said in a statement that many businesses “depend on high-skilled immigration to fill important jobs and while we definitely want to root out fraud and abuse in the system, we don’t want to discourage that kind of legal immigration.”
He promised Congress would work with the Trump administration to “strike the right balance.”
Cerner, a health care IT company based in Kansas City, also uses the program to recruit workers, according to Dan Smith, the company’s spokesman. He did not provide an exact number of Cerner employees currently in the country through the program.
“We value diversity of backgrounds and we’ll remain committed to recruiting the best talents from across the world,” Smith said.
Small businesses also rely on the program.
Ulterius Technologies, a Wichita-based startup, is waiting to see whether it’ll receive visa approval for two recent Wichita State University graduates who hail from Iran and Paraguay, said Kevin Hallacy, the company’s CEO.
“For us, if we were to lose that (program) it’s going to stunt our growth,” Hallacy said.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, has previously sponsored legislation known as the Startup Act, which would enact a new visa program for U.S.-educated students from foreign countries and eliminate a per-country cap on employment-based visas.
He plans to reintroduce the legislation with tweaks in the future, but he also said in a statement that he supports Trump’s efforts to review the H-1B program.
“The H-1B Visa Program, which I’ve sought to improve during my time in Congress through my Startup Act legislation, has enabled American businesses to fill high-skilled positions, contributing to economic growth and American competitiveness,” Moran said in a statement. “Identifying and addressing potential fraud and abuse in the program while prioritizing job growth for our nation’s citizens would benefit us all.”