CATHERINE LUCEY and SCOTT BAUER
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) —
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — Turning back to the economic populism that helped drive his election campaign, President Donald Trump signed an order Tuesday he said should help American workers whose jobs are threatened by skilled immigrants.
At the headquarters of hand and power tool manufacturer Snap-on Inc., Trump signed an order that that asks the government to propose new rules and changes that will stop what he called abuses in a visa program used by U.S. technology companies. Dubbed “Buy American and Hire American,” the directive follows a series of recent Trump reversals on economic policies.
“We are going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first,” Trump declared, standing in front of an American flag fashioned out of wrenches.
Not everyone, though, is enamored of policies that could be perceived as protectionist. In the construction industry, a trades group has argued that “Buy American” requirements could add red tape to federal construction projects.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce sent earlier this month, officials with the Associated General Contractors of America warned the policies would “result in restrictive, punitive and complex procurement policies and those are seldom seen as the pathway to either increased competition or economic growth.”
For instance, the new federal procurement requirements could mean contractors have to create new administrative procedures to track the origins of the products they install. And if manufacturers couldn’t provide proof that the materials were made entirely in the U.S., contractors could be on the hook should there be an audit.
Much like some previous orders, however, Trump’s executive action on Tuesday essentially looks for detailed reports rather than making decisive changes. In this case, the reports are about granting visas to highly skilled foreign workers and ensuring that government purchasing programs buy American-made goods as required by law.
Trump chose to sign the directive at Snap-on Inc., based in Wisconsin, a state he narrowly carried in November on the strength of support from white, working-class voters. Trump now has only a 41 percent approval rating in the state.
He campaigned last year on promises to overhaul U.S. trade and regulatory policy, but his executive orders on those issues reflect the administration’s bowing somewhat to the limits of presidential power. Also, he has recently reversed several populist promises, including standing up to China, which he contended was manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs, and eliminating the Export-Import Bank, which he billed as wasteful subsidy.
But Trump returned on Tuesday to the economic tough talk of his campaign, saying: “We’re going to make some very big changes or we are going to get rid of NAFTA for once and for all,” referring to the Clinton-era U.S. trade pact with Canada and Mexico.
In his new directive, the president is targeting the H-1B visa program, which the White House says undercuts U.S. workers by bringing in large numbers of cheaper, foreign workers and driving down wages. The tech industry has argued that the H-1B program is needed because it encourages students to stay in the U.S. after getting degrees in high-tech specialties — and because companies can’t always find enough American workers with the abilities they need.
The new order would direct U.S. agencies to propose rules to prevent immigration fraud and abuse. They would also be asked to offer changes so that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid applicants.
The number of requests for H-1B visas declined this year by about 15 percent, or roughly 37,000 applications, but the total was still nearly 200,000, far more than the 85,000 limit.
Tuesday’s order also seeks to strengthen requirements that American-made products be used in certain federal construction projects, as well as in various grant-funded transportation projects. The commerce secretary is to review how to close loopholes in existing rules and provide recommendations to the president within 220 days. The order also asks agencies to assess the use of waivers.
The trip brought Trump to the congressional district of House Speaker Paul Ryan, but Ryan was out of the country on a congressional visit. The president was greeted by Gov. Scott Walker outside Snap-on’s headquarters.
During his remarks, Trump weighed in on another economic issue, promising to find a solution to a trade dispute with Canada that has left dairy farmers in Wisconsin and New York without a market they had for their product.
Trump said Canada has been “very, very unfair” to dairy farmers and “we’re going to start working on that.”
Canada has decided to impose import taxes on ultra-filtered milk, a protein liquid concentrate used to make cheese. It had been duty free but Canada changed course after milk producers there complained. About 70 dairy producers in both U.S. states are affected.
As for the visa program, Democratic lawmakers and organizations ranging from the pro-business Chamber of Commerce to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation say they welcome improvements, although they are not always in line with Trump’s ideas.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., urged Trump to skip further study and support her bill to rebuild U.S. infrastructure with American iron and steel. The Chamber of Commerce added that it would be a “mistake to close the door on high-skilled workers” who can contribute to the growth and expansion of American businesses and make the U.S. more competitive around the world.
Trump has long pledged to support American goods and workers, but his own business record is mixed. Many Trump-branded products, like clothing, are made overseas. His businesses have also hired foreign workers, including at his Palm Beach, Florida, club.
Snap-on makes hand and power tools, diagnostics software, information and management systems and shop equipment for use in agriculture, the military and aviation. In addition to 11 factories in the U.S., financial disclosures show it has plants in China, Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
During his tour, Trump was shown metal boxes where cremated ashes are deposited. He called it “very depressing.”
The Daily Reporter staff writer Alex Zank and Associated Press writer Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.