President Trump signed a pair of executive orders Tuesday intended to bolster "Buy American" and "Hire American" policies.
The orders call on federal agencies to adopt more restrictive policies for the high-tech H1-B visa program and to limit the circumstances in federal contracts under which bidders are allowed to use foreign materials such as steel.
"With this order, I am directing every single agency in our government to strictly uphold our Buy American law, to minimize the use of waivers and to maximize the use of made in American content in all federal projects. It's time. For the first time ever we are going to go after contractors who use dumped steel," Trump said.
"American workers have long called for reforms to end these visa abuses and today their calls are being answered for the first time ... No one can compete with American workers when they compete on a fair and level playing field, which hasn't happened for decades," Trump said at an appearance at a tool factory in Kenosha, Wis.
Trump said the administration would move the visa program away from one that awards applicants through a lottery system to one that specifically benefits the most highly skilled foreign employees. Administration officials have argued that will ensure that companies that use the program don't bring in less-skilled employees who cannot demand higher salaries.
He promised that the administration would use a "sledgehammer" to enforce the policies.
The orders drew qualified praise from liberal groups. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, a "good first step."
"Although short on specifics, today's order addresses critically important issues. With respect to immigration, the labor movement consistently has called for reform, rather than expansion, of temporary work visa programs that make U.S. and foreign workers more vulnerable to discrimination, displacement and exploitation. A serious look at the impact of these captive-work programs on rights, wages and working conditions is long overdue," Trumka said.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's global trade watch program, also welcomed them. "If these important changes to procurement policy were fully implemented and the administration ended the waivers of Buy American policy now in place because of past trade deals, it could create more American manufacturing jobs and bring down our trade deficit," she said.
Anti-immigration groups praised the orders as well. "We hope to see new rules establishing transparency, salary floors and other criteria to ensure these visas are used for only truly high-skill positions in which there is a true shortage of American workers," said Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA.
Democrats were less impressed. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was just "rhetoric" and called on Trump to back legislation by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., requiring U.S. iron and steel be used in pipeline projects. "If the president is serious about 'Buy American' he should announce his support for Tammy Baldwin's bill. That would be real," Schumer said.
The first executive order Trump signed called on the Labor Department to more strictly monitor the H1-B visa program with the aim of finding ways to prevent the visas from being used to bring in workers at lower pay than similarly qualified domestic workers.
The order would affect about a third of companies that use the visa program, said Chad Graham, a partner at the immigration law firm Graham Adair. "I think there is a chance that we will see some positions unfilled for a longer period of time," Graham said.
The second executive order would call on federal agencies to "more narrowly construe" the public interest provisions of federal contracting rules. That would involve strictly limiting the circumstances under which waivers of the rules would be given. Agencies would be told to take into account whether the contract bidders are using materials such as steel "dumped" on the U.S. by foreign countries.
Trump said the orders were about honoring U.S. workers. "We are a nation of builders. We are the country that dug out the Panama Canal, that put a man on the face of the moon, that linked our cities with majestic railroads and curving highways," he said.