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Donald Trump Changes Position On Visas For Highly Skilled Workers


Immigration came up again during last night's Republican presidential debate, but this time, the candidates were focused on legal immigration - in particular, a pair of controversial visa programs that allow foreign workers to take jobs temporarily here in the U.S. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to break it down.

Hey there, Scott.


CORNISH: So this conversation started out of the Fox News Channel debate when Donald Trump was asked about an apparent inconsistency in his approach to visas for high-skilled foreign workers.

HORSLEY: That's right. Moderator Megyn Kelly noted that Trump's website includes some strong language against a program that gives visas to workers like engineers and scientists, saying that program could decimate American workers. But in other settings, Trump has seemed to favor that program and he did so again last night.


DONALD TRUMP: I'm changing. We need highly-skilled people in this country and if we can't do it, we'll get them in. But - but - and we do need. In Silicon Valley, we absolutely have to have.

HORSLEY: Now, as soon as the debate was over though, Trump put out a statement reverting to his earlier position and promising to end forever the use of visas as what he called a cheap labor program.

CORNISH: Now, the visas Trump was talking about are for highly-skilled workers - scientists and engineers, for example. But then you had Ted Cruz, who also raised the issue of lower-skilled workers who are brought into the U.S. to work as landscapers or hotel maids. What's going on there?

HORSLEY: Yeah, and Cruz turned that criticism against Trump himself, saying the billionaire businessman relies on such foreign workers to help staff his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.


TED CRUZ: Down in Florida, that hotel has brought in hundreds of foreign workers. And afterwards - it was really striking - I watched a CNN interview Donald did where he explained, he said, well, the problem is you can't find Americans who are qualified or who want to work as waiters and waitresses. Now, let me ask the people here. How many people here have worked as a waiter or waitress?

HORSLEY: Cruz noted that his own father worked as a dishwasher. Marco Rubio's father worked as a bartender. Now, of course, both their fathers were immigrants from Cuba, but Cruz was trying to argue that plenty of Americans could do those jobs if Trump had simply looked a little harder. Trump, for his part, insists Americans are not willing to sign on for seasonal work that only runs from November to March.

CORNISH: Now, these are two different visa programs basically at opposite ends of the skills ladder. Do they raise essentially the same questions?

HORSLEY: Yeah, there's long been this tension between employers who argue they need the ability to bring in foreign workers on a temporary visa and critics who say these visas just depress the bargaining power and the wages of America's homegrown workforce. What's more - as Marco Rubio argued last night - the foreign workers who get these visas are often left vulnerable.


MARCO RUBIO: When you bring them in this way, when you bring someone in from abroad on one of these visas, they can't go work for anybody else. They either work for you or they have to go back home. You basically have them captive. So you don't have to worry about competing for higher wages with another hotel down the street, and that's why you bring workers from abroad.

HORSLEY: Now, the comprehensive immigration bill that Rubio worked on when he was part of the Gang of Eight in the Senate would've expanded some of these visa programs, but it also would've given foreign workers more mobility and more bargaining power. Of course, that bill failed to pass in the U.S. House.

CORNISH: That's NPR Scott Horsley.

Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.