Early in his quest for the Republican nomination for president, Donald Trump promised major H-1B reforms. But Thursday night, at a debate in Detroit with his fellow Republican candidates, Trump said he was "softening" his position.
The move created an instant mess for Trump. So early this morning, his campaign issued a statement condemning the H-1B program and stressed the need to "hire Americans first."
But the damage was done.
Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis and a leading critic of the visa program, noted in a post-debate blog post: "I'm getting e-mail messages from some absolutely furious supporters of Donald Trump — who are now FORMER supporters of Trump."
The trouble began with a question from Fox News Reporter Megyn Kelly about inconsistencies in Trump's statements. Said Kelly: "Mr. Trump, your campaign website to this day argues that more visas for highly skilled workers would, quote, "decimate American workers." However, at the CNBC debate, you spoke enthusiastically in favor of these visas. So, which is it?" (see transcript)
"I'm changing. I'm changing," said Trump, in response. "We need highly skilled people in this country. In Silicon Valley, we absolutely have to have."
He also said: "I'm changing it, and I'm softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country."
Trump's post-debate statement suggested that Kelly's question wasn't specific to the H-1B program: "Megyn Kelly asked about highly-skilled immigration." Then the statement goes to attack the visa program:
"The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay. I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse and ending outrageous practices such as those that occurred at Disney in Florida when Americans were forced to train their foreign replacements. I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program.
"No exceptions," wrote Trump.
Trump's statement appears to argue that he was discussing green cards, permanent immigration, for university graduates and not H-1B visas.
But Kelly was asking Trump about the H-1B program. She used the word "decimate," in her question, citing the same word Trump's platform uses in its criticism of the higher H-1B visa caps sought in the I-Square bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of Trump's GOP presidential rivals.
Trump, in response to Kelly's question, spoke about how foreign students will go to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton and "as soon as they're finished they'll get shoved out. They want to stay in this country. They want to stay here desperately, they're not able to stay here.
"For that purpose, we absolutely have to be able to keep the brain power in this country," said Trump.
Pressing for clarity, Kelly asked Trump: "You are abandoning the position on your Website?"
Trump's H-1B position has two main features. It raises the pay of visa workers to keep employers from paying entry-level wages. Higher salaries "will force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed" workers "instead of flying in cheaper workers from overseas."
A second major feature is the campaign's "hire American workers first" edict. Trump wrote that H-1B "petitions for workers should be mailed to the unemployment office, not USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service)."
During the debate, Kelly also quizzed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about his inconsistencies on the H-1B program. She pointed out that Cruz supported a major hike in the visa cap, and did not join the group of bipartisan Senators seeking an investigation of the program following Southern California Edison's layoff last year.
"The abuse of the H-1B program has been rampant," said Cruz, in response.
Cruz is co-sponsoring legislation with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to substantially hike H-1B wages, tighten program rules and eliminate non-disparagement clauses that serve to keep IT workers from speaking out.
As president, Cruz said he would impose a 180-day moratorium on the H-1B program and "implement a comprehensive investigation, because "you got U.S. companies that are firing American workers, bringing in foreign workers, and forcing them to train their replacements."
Trump recently received the endorsement Sessions, who also heads the Senate immigration subcommittee. Two former IT workers, who each said they had to train a foreign replacement, spoke at a recent Trump rally.