WASHINGTON — Science and technology students at the nation's historically black colleges could get a boost from President Donald Trump's executive order aimed at altering a visa program that brings highly skilled workers to the United States.
Leaders and advocates for historically black colleges and universities have been monitoring the immigration and jobs debate, telling the Trump administration and congressional lawmakers that so-called science, technology, engineering and math graduates from HBCU schools are readily available to fill high-tech jobs that are currently going to foreign workers.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who hosted a gathering of black college presidents in Washington, said Trump's order "as a byproduct could help some of the HBCU graduates."
"I think it can be a good thing," added Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, whose district includes North Carolina A&T State University. "I want to see what comes of this, and maybe later on this year we'll have a better idea."
Trump signed an order Tuesday dubbed "Buy American, Hire American," which instructs the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Labor and State to recommend new rules to prevent immigration fraud and abuse.
The order, in part, takes aim at the H-1B visa program, which admits 85,000 immigrants each year mostly to work in high-tech jobs that companies say are difficult to fill with Americans.
Trump as a candidate threatened to eliminate the program, saying it takes jobs from American workers and drives wages down.
An HBCU is any black college or university established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African-Americans, who were barred from attending majority-white schools in the pre-civil-rights era. More than 100 campuses are designated as HBCUs and they serve more than 300,000 students.
HBCUs account for 3 percent of the nation's colleges and universities but produce 27 percent of African-American students with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields, according to Department of Education figures. Still, only 6 percent of the national STEM-related workforce is African-American, according to 2011 census data.
Some businesses argue that there aren't enough African-American STEM graduates to fill jobs. Some lawmakers, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, contend that companies need to do a better job at recruiting and hiring skilled African-American workers.
William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO, said Trump's executive order might pressure U.S. businesses to hire African-American and other STEM graduates before bringing in foreign workers on H-1B visas.
"It's possible it may have a bully pulpit effect, but it's also possible that businesses might see this (executive order) as window dressing," said Spriggs, a Howard University economics professor who served as assistant secretary for policy in the Labor Department under President Barack Obama. "Some of them have gotten used to Trump's pattern of saying he's going to do things to help workers and then reneging on them."
On the campaign trail, Trump called the H-1B program "very, very bad for workers" while acknowledging that he's used it to bring in foreign employees for his own businesses.
Tuesday's executive order stopped short of Trump's campaign call and made no specific recommendations on how to change the program.
"We're basically saying to these agencies, 'Tell us everything you think you can do,'" a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, told reporters ahead of Trump's signing. "And some of that will be administrative, and some if they'll say will have to be done legislatively."
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said H-1B visas should be given based on the economic need of the country at a particular time.
"They need to be scaled up and ramped down based on the needs of the U.S. economy in the supply of ... the resources to fill some of the roles," Tillis said during a late-March committee hearing.