The decline in employers seeking temporary visas for low-wage foreign workers is a direct result of President Donald Trump's pledge to penalize U.S. companies that replace American workers with cheap immigrant labor, according to immigration experts.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Monday that the number of H-1B visa applications dropped about 16 percent over the past year, marking the first such decline since 2012. Employers submitted 199,000 H-1B applications to the USCIS office this year, compared to 236,000 applications filed in 2016.
The federal government allots 86,000 visas annually for highly skilled foreign employees to work for U.S. companies, typically in the tech industry, reserving roughly a quarter for people who have completed a master's degree.
Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the decline stemmed from Trump's campaign promise to crackdown on companies that take advantage of the program to the detriment of Americans.
"There's likely a greater reluctance on the part of some companies that know they've been using the program to undercut American workers because they believe there's going to be a tightening up," Stein told the Washington Free Beacon.
H-1B visas were initially created to allow American companies to hire highly specialized foreign workers in temporary positions. Outsourcing firms have since usedd the program to replace U.S. workers with low-cost immigrants, despite federal law mandating that the visas cannot "adversely affect the wages and working conditions" of Americans.
Trump vowed on the campaign trail to end the program, declaring that it incentivizes U.S. companies to swap out American workers for lower-cost foreign replacements.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said employers who have exploited the H-1B visa program exclusively to hire cheap labor likely refrained from applying for the visas this year to determine whether the Trump administration is serious about pursuing an enforcement clampdown.
"My sense is that the big tech companies that directly hire H-1B immigrant workers probably did not cut back on their requests, but the body shops, mostly India-based companies that rent out H-1Bs as cheap labor, is where most of the decline happened," Krikorian told the Free Beacon in an interview Tuesday.
"In a way, I think the drop in H-1B visa requests is similar to the drop in illegal border crossings—they're all an initial reaction to Trump's rhetoric reflecting concerns as to what he's going to do. Whether those trends continue will depend on what the administration actually does," he added.
The Trump administration made incremental adjustments to the visa program earlier this month, directing USCIS to combat "fraud and abuse" within the program through measures aimed at making it harder for employers to hire foreign workers using H-1B visas. The Justice Department also warned employers to avoid discriminating against American workers.
Trump dealt another blow to the program Tuesday afternoon when he signed an executive order targeting the visas during a visit to the Snap-on Tools manufacturing headquarters in Kenosha, Wis.
The two-pronged "Buy American, Hire American" order will make it more difficult for U.S. companies to recruit low-wage foreign workers at the expense of American workers. The president will also mandate federal agencies to prioritize purchases from American companies.
"Trump is trying to incentivize companies to hire more American workers and to stop using the H-1B program to hire cheaper foreign labor," Stein said. "He's sending a very clear message to companies that it's time to stop pretending that foreign workers are more skilled or more desirable except that they're cheaper and easier to exploit."