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 Friday 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.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.