President Donald Trump on Tuesday will sign an executive order aimed at bolstering his pledge to “buy American and hire American” by directing federal agencies to probe government procurement practices and re-examine all programs under which workers enter the United States from abroad — including H-1B visas, a key priority for tech companies.
The “Buy American” aspect of the order will focus primarily on “the twin pillars of maximizing ‘Made in America’ content and minimizing waivers and exceptions to ‘Buy American’ laws,” a senior administration official told reporters late Monday afternoon.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will coordinate an effort across all government agencies to root out weak monitoring, enforcement and compliance efforts relating to procurement practices, the official said. Ross will then advise Trump on how to close any existing loopholes in a report due 220 days from now — Thanksgiving Day — though the official noted recommendations could also come sooner.
The executive order will also direct the Commerce Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to “comprehensively assess” the procurement provisions of trade agreements, which allow foreign companies to bid on U.S. government contracts, in an effort to “determine which deals may actually be working for America and which may not,” the official said.
“It is simply unfair for government contracts to be awarded to low bidders that use dumped or injuriously subsidized, foreign-source content to push out domestic producers,” the official said. “This portion of the executive order is an innovative step to stop the foreign cheaters from using taxpayer funds to steal our jobs, to shutter our steel mills and offshore our factories.”
The “Hire American” side of the order will re-examine all programs that govern the entry of foreign labor into the United States, with the goal of reforming current practices to grant visas to higher-skilled and higher-paid workers, a second senior administration official said.
The order will also direct the departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State to examine their various programs and explore various ways to crack down on “fraud and abuse … in our immigration system in order to protect workers in the United States and their economic conditions.”
While the order broadly calls for greater enforcement of all visa programs, the official said only one is specifically mentioned by name: the H-1B visa program, which allows companies to bring highly skilled foreign workers to the U.S. on a temporary basis.
The official criticized the H-1B system for awarding visas randomly, without taking into account an applicant’s skill or salary level. “The result of that is that workers are often brought in at well below market rates,” the official said.
The official emphasized that while each department will need a “full legal analysis” to determine what changes can be made to existing programs, the administration believes there are steps that can be taken both administratively and legislatively. Some potential changes to the H-1B program included weighting the lottery to give an advantage to applicants who hold higher education degrees, for example, or to increase the application fee.
“If you change that current system that awards visas randomly, without regard or skill or wage, to a skill-based awarding, it makes it extremely difficult to use the visa to replace or undercut American workers, because you’re not bringing in workers at beneath the market wage,” the official said. “So it’s a very elegant way of solving systemic problems in the H-1B guest worker visa.”
Trump has long promised to pursue a “buy American, hire American” initiative, which aims to limit the purchase of goods manufactured abroad and the use of foreign workers. He included the goal in two of his highest-profile speeches since entering the Oval Office — his inaugural address in January and his address to a joint session of Congress in February — and tweeted last month that the initiative represents “the core of [his] agenda.”
While the executive order will not immediately change any specific policies, it represents a concrete and symbolic step toward achieving that goal.
“Some changes will come quickly, some will take more time,” the official said, adding that there is “great appetite” within the various agencies to move “expeditiously.”
“I don’t want to tell you exactly how long it’s going to take," the official added, "but the point is that it’s a clear statement from the president of the United States to begin shoring up these abuses and to do so immediately.”