April 23, 2017

Sina-cism: What if Trump is right about something?

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Flickr / Gage Skidmore

President Trump

I realize some of you would prefer to simply dismiss everything Trump does, says, or believes as wrong, simply because he did, said or believed it.
Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

It has been three months since Donald Trump occupied the White House, and I can’t decide which has been more amusing: Watching the administration learn as it goes, or watching the left demonize its every move.

To be sure, our nation’s forty-fifth president is often less than presidential. Botched immigration orders and tweets worthy of junior high school come to mind.

But Trump’s resolve to stand up to the Assad regime in Syria and Vladimir Putin’s heinous role there could mark a refreshing change from the Obama years — provided Trump follows tough talk with clear goals and coherent strategy.

And Neil Gorsuch was a superb choice for the Supreme Court — with a brilliant legal mind, personal grace, and a nonpartisan attitude the nation needs.

Usually, however, things aren’t so clear. That is the case when it comes to H-1B visas.

Last Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order aiming to bolster existing rules around “Hire American” and “Buy American.” The H-1B visa program falls under the first.

In brief, there are 85,000 slots available each year for foreign workers to fill technical jobs for which companies are unable to find sufficient U.S. workers. Because the H-1B visa program is heavily oversubscribed each year, the government uses a lottery to decide which companies get the visas.

Massachusetts, with an economy heavily dependent upon technology, medicine, education and law, is deeply involved with the H-1B program. And why not? We live in a globalized economy, and bringing in talented workers helps grow our economy.

What’s more, the H-1B visa program appears to line up with conservative economic tenets that favor free trade and the movement of labor. This 2008 Heritage Foundation report, for example, argues for an increase in H-1B visas, asserting that each such job supports four additional jobs in the United States.

But does all this theory stand up to reality?

Critics of the H-1B visa program say that in most years the bulk of the visas go to just a handful of companies, and that some of them are using the program as a way to evade prevailing wages, and are thus hurting workers in key industries.

A July 2013 Commonwealth Magazine article, for example, noted that Massachusetts was the sixth leading H-1B visa state the previous year, but that just one company, Patni Americas Inc., received 1,260 H-1B visas in fiscal 2012, 23 percent of the state’s total.

[Editor’s note: In ensuing years, Patni Americas appears to have changed its ways.]

According to the article, Patni and other employment firms that operated in that fashion essentially have been using the program to resell labor and pay foreign workers less than their American-born counterparts for the same positions and responsibilities.

If true, those are violations of the program’s spirit, if not the letter of the law.

Not surprisingly, that strikes many Americans as unfair, regardless of their political views. Trump’s order — the details of which are a long way from complete — may seek to end such abuses.

Whether Trump’s policies draw cheers or jeers may depend upon whether the abuses he seeks to curb prove to be real or so minor as not to matter. Not surprisingly, existing studies give different answers. And, of course, each side cites the studies it prefers.

But a middle view can be found in this study from Glassdoor. It suggests that in some fields, foreign workers are indeed paid less. However, in other fields they are paid more. And in yet others, about the same as American-born workers.

So — deep breath, people — maybe Trump is right. If so, his vow to enforce existing rules regarding H-1B visas is a position that ought to be cheered by all American workers and anyone who values the rule of law. And if that marks a difference from his campaign trail vow to eliminate the program, so be it. The problem isn’t changing one’s mind in the face of new evidence, but persisting in a flawed policy when the facts advise a course correction.

But to learn whether Trump is right will take time and patience. Three months out of a four-year term is insufficient to give a clear verdict on this or any other piece of his economic agenda.

I realize some of you would prefer to simply dismiss everything Trump does, says, or believes as wrong, simply because he did, said or believed it.

But perhaps you can take some comfort in this: On issue after issue, our new president’s changes of mind and heart may yet constitute evidence that anyone, even a Donald Trump, tends to grow once they become president of the United States.

Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear every Sunday.

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