President Trump's meeting with Harley shines light on this corporate immigration issue

Trump: I thank Harley for building in America

President Donald Trump met on Thursday afternoon with executives from Harley-Davidson, a company that has long proudly manufactured its heavyweight motorcycles in factories across the United States.

But Harley-Davidson has outsourced a different type of work information technology that has thrust the company into the debate over high-skilled immigration.

Harley Davidson signed an agreement with Indian tech staffing giant Infosys in 2012 to take over parts of its IT department. To handle the project, Infosys opened a new facility it Milwaukee, where Harley Davidson is based. About 125 positions were eliminated at Harley Davidson in the process. And workers who applied for a job at the Infosys facility claimed they were discriminated against in favor of South Asian employees.

According to the complaint, Infosys relied heavily on workers with H1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to hire from abroad in highly skilled fields in which there area shortage of American workers. But the suit argues that there should have been plenty of qualified workers available, such as the ones who just lost their jobs at Harley Davidson.

President Donald Trump speaks with Harley Davidson CEO Matthew Levatich as he arrives to meet with Harley Davidson executives and union representatives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 2, 2017.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

Attorneys for the workers are seeking class certification. Infosys declined to comment.

Infosys is "filling a disproportionately large percentage of its workforce with individuals of South Asian race ... even when there are qualified individuals available in the United States," the complaint states.

Richard Strong, director of IT at Harley Davidson, said the company strongly encouraged Infosys to hire its former employees. The changes were part of a broader reorganization of its technology department, he said, and the company added a net total of 135 workers in even more highly skilled positions.

"Everybody had the opportunity to reapply for those positions," Strong said. "It was never a cost-cutting exercise. It was more of a realignment and retooling."

The suit underscores the potentially wide reach of Trump's proposals to overhaul the nation's immigration system. Though H-1B visas have long been considered essential in Silicon Valley Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg is one of the program's most vocal supporters the program's ripple effects also extend to America's heartland.

It is unclear if immigration will come up during Trump's meeting with Harley-Davidson on Thursday afternoon. But his administration has repeatedly criticized H-1B visas as undercutting U.S. workers. On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the H-1B program could be the focus of a future executive order. Trump railed against the practice on the campaign trail, at one point calling it a "cheap labor program."

Harley-Davidson executives did not meet with Trump alone. The meeting occurred in the Roosevelt Room and included union leaders — who have been staunch supporters of tightening the H-1B program.

Correction: This story has been revised to correct the spelling of Zuckerberg.

Harley-Davidson execs roll to the White House on motorcycles