Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
As two of the most prolific political donors in the Donald Trump era, billionaires Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein have supported the president’s “America First” agenda. Elizabeth, the president of their shipping supplies company, recently wrote to customers: “Personally, I am an American first. I care about American jobs.”
But when it comes to business, their company has sought special visas for foreign workers — going so far as to sue the government to secure one at the same time federal officials implemented the president’s more stringent immigration policies.
The suit, filed February in federal district court in Illinois, came after the administration rejected the company’s 2018 petition to hire a full-time software engineer from India, court records show. The company sought a type of visa, called an H-1B, that allows foreign workers with special skills to stay in the U.S. for temporary periods.
Uline Inc., a Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, company that competes with Staples, FedEx Office and OfficeMax, regularly seeks temporary work visas reserved for non-U.S. workers, the company said in a statement.
The Uihleins back conservative candidates and groups that have advocated not only for crackdowns on illegal immigration, but also for stemming legal migration to the U.S.
In court testimony last year in an unrelated case in Texas, Richard Uihlein, who is the company’s CEO, was asked if his contributions to a group that supports conservative representatives were meant to aid not just immigration reform but a tougher immigration policy. Uihlein responded: “I would say that’s correct, yep.”
During the 2018 cycle, federal campaign finance records show, Richard Uihlein gave more than $38 million to conservative candidates and groups and his wife, Elizabeth, gave more than $1.5 million. The only individual donor who gave more to support Republicans during the 2018 cycle than Richard Uihlein was Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Richard Uihlein’s recent political donations included $2.5 million to the failed Illinois gubernatorial campaign of Jeanne Ives, who ran an ad featuring an actor wearing a hoodie, his face covered, thanking her opponent for making the state a “sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals.” He also gave $100,000 to a super PAC supporting the failed senate campaign of Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who ran for office amid allegations that he’d sexually molested underage girls. Moore, a staunch supporter of aggressive policies to curb immigration, backed legislation that would’ve halved the number of green cards issued in the U.S.
In March, the Uihleins gave $500,000 each to America First Action Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC staffed with former administration officials, federal campaign records show. In addition, the couple attended Trump’s inaugural after each contributed $250,000 to his inaugural fund.
The worker on whose behalf the company sued appears to have been caught up in a Trump administration effort to scrutinize applications for H-1B work visas. In April 2017, Trump signed the “Buy Americanand Hire American” executive order that instructed immigration officials to propose new rules to “protect the interests of United States workers in the administration of our immigration system.”
That effort has been effective. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied 14 percent of H-1B petitions filed on behalf of H-1B holders seeking to continue working in the U.S. through the second quarter of this fiscal year, up from 3 percent of such petitions in fiscal year 2015, according to an analysis of government data by the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit public policy group.
Lawyers for Uline, which the Uihleins started in 1980, withdrew their lawsuit months after filing it, telling the court that immigration authorities had approved a subsequent visa petition for the worker.
Uline boasts that it’s one of the biggest distributors of shipping, industrial and packing materials in North America. In its visa application, Uline told the government it employs 5,200 workers nationwide and brings in $3.6 billion in gross annual income.
The worker, Abhishek Nimdia, told ProPublica that he enjoyed working at Uline and questioned whether the Uihleins actually support the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies.
“I don’t think they are against immigration in any way, because if they were, why would they support me?” he said in an interview.
In a statement provided by an outside publicist, Uline said that the company’s visa “decisions are made without the visibility of or approval from Liz and Dick Uihlein to support our growing business.” No one from Uline discussed the visas of its current employees on H-1Bs with administration officials, the statement said.
Richard Uihlein said in a statement provided by his executive assistant that he’s always been in favor of legal immigration. “Highly skilled immigrants with H-1B visas help contribute to the growth of both Uline and the US economy as a whole,” he said.
Matthew Bourke, a spokesman for USCIS, said in a statement that the agency “does not consider political affiliations or political connections when adjudicating benefit requests.”
Nimdia’s experience navigating the H-1B visa process during the Trump administration isn’t unique, said Jonathan Wasden, a former government lawyer who specializes in visa cases.
Immigration officials wary of litigation will usually relent once sued over H-1B denials like Nimdia’s — but only deep-pocketed employers can afford to take on the fight, Wasden said. The administration’s enforcement approach is a “ploy to eliminate people and make it as miserable as possible for H-1Bs to stay in the country,” he said.
Nimdia was originally employed by a Uline contractor. Uline sought to hire him as a full-time employee last summer, telling USCIS he’d be working to “design, develop, and implement automated testing and tooling solutions” as a “Quality Assurance Automation Engineer” at a prevailing annual wage of about $71,400, according to a copy of his visa application. The company also sought to sponsor Nimdia’s wife.
USCIS challenged Uline’s assertion that Nimdia’s job was a “specialty occupation,” asking the company for more information because its prior description of his duties was written “in relatively generalized and abstract terms” that didn’t adequately detail his job duties.
Uline responded with more information, but immigration officials again denied the visa, reaffirming their earlier position. That’s when Uline sued.
Nimdia, emphasizing that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of his employer, said the job with Uline was the latest stage in an almost nine-year stint working in the U.S. on temporary visas.
“They hired me as a contractor, liked me very much and they wanted to sponsor me,” he said. “There was a little hurdle. That’s the short story.”