Minnesota employers as different as hospitals, retailers and the Vikings find themselves in an uneasy spotlight the Trump administration has trained on a controversial work visa program.

As part of President Donald Trump's Buy American and Hire American initiative, the government recently released for the first time detailed data on employers who secured three-year H-1B visas for college-educated professionals. Local employers and immigration attorneys also report a major increase in paperwork requests and unannounced site visits.

Administration supporters say these steps bring needed transparency to the program, which has been blamed for displacing U.S. workers. But local critics say that instead of meaningful reforms, the government so far has opted for crippling red tape and employer shaming.

"I've not seen this much anxiety in the time I've been doing this," said Chris Wendt, the veteran immigration attorney at the Mayo Clinic, the state's top H-1B employer. "What's going to happen next?"

The new data show Minnesota-based employers enlisted highly educated, well-paid hires through the program, which generally taps foreigners with at least four-year degrees for specialized jobs, especially in IT, science and engineering.

The Buy American and Hire American executive order Trump signed in April directed federal agencies to redouble efforts to prevent abuse of the H-1B program and look for ways to ensure visas go only to the highest-paid, most skilled foreign workers.

In recent weeks, U.S. Citizenship and Application Services, the agency that handles H-1B applications, put out data breaking down H-1Bs approved in 2015 and 2016 by employer ­— an unprecedented trove that includes information about the education and salaries of hires.

The 10 Minnesota employers awarded the most H-1Bs together secured 858 visas in 2016. They reported an average salary of $108,000 for these hires. More than 75 percent of the visas went to hires with advanced degrees. More than 80 other local employers used the program to hire anywhere from one to a dozen workers.

Minnesota employers, however, are not the biggest users of H-1Bs in the state. According to MyVisaJobs.com, a website that compiles data on a preliminary application that employers file, the top three applicants for Minnesota-based positions in 2016 were Indian IT outsourcing companies. The companies, which contract with unidentified U.S. employers to bring in H-1B workers, put in about 2,000 out of almost 10,000 applications and reported an average salary of $70,000. Corporations with a presence in the state, such as IBM, also outpaced Minnesota-based companies.

Some local employers, such as 3M and Medtronic, declined to comment. Others stressed that their H-1B hires are a tiny fraction of their workforce and bring in important talent.

At the University of Minnesota, with the second largest number of visas in 2016, the overwhelming majority are professors and researchers. More than 70 percent have doctorates. As many as 20 percent are U graduates.

"What we are doing and should be doing is looking for the best and brightest minds," said Mark Schneider, the university's associate director for employment-based visas.

Mayo, which employs more than 63,000 people overall, said many of the employees it hires through the H-1B program are physicians, but it also enlists data researchers and other staff. Some of its 224 approved petitions last year were for clinics in other states.

Anti-visa crusade?

While they said more transparency in the program is a good thing, some see the information released under the "Hire American" banner as yet another sign of a shift under Trump, who has championed a bill that would slash legal immigration numbers.

They report a marked increase this year in visits by immigration officials to workplaces that hire H-1B employees. They've also seen a big rise in so-called Requests for Evidence, extra paperwork to show, say, that a hire meets education requirements. At Mayo, Wendt says a more cumbersome application process forced the clinic to pay for pricier expedited applications — an option the government suspended for six months this year.

Employers and others described a growing number of requests as frivolous — say, calling for proof that a highly specialized position requires a bachelor's degree or asking for information already provided in the application.

Sandra Feist, a Minneapolis attorney, said in one case, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) wanted more proof that a world-famous apparel company actually exists. "They are throwing the book at you to discourage and delay your H-1B applications," Schneider said.

This Halloween, attorneys at Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron hosted a webinar for employers on these changes, which include a recent announcement that additional paperwork will be required to apply for three-year visa extensions. The holiday timing underscored what veteran lawyer Laura Danielson sees as an unsettling time for high-skilled programs. She said the past six months have been the most difficult in her 30-year career.

"There's an ideological crusade going on against H-1Bs," Feist said. "The goal is to wear down employers in a war of attrition."

Abusers on alert

USCIS said in a statement that its officers request more evidence only if careful review shows an application has fallen short.

"USCIS is committed to protecting the interests of U.S. workers as directed under the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order," the agency said.

Critics of the H-1B program contend employers use it to attract cheaper and pliable labor, and they cheer the Trump administration's steps. These include a new tip line, which USCIS says yielded "numerous valuable fraud tips." Recent moves by Disney and others to lay off IT workers and replace them with hires supplied by Indian outsourcing companies have fueled criticism.

Debjyoti Dwivedy, a Twin Cities storage engineer and vice president of Immigration Voice, an advocacy group for skilled workers, says the Trump administration's spotlight puts abusive employers on alert.

The group would like to see changes that would thwart unscrupulous employers who use backlogs in the system to keep H-1B employees in "indentured servitude" while they wait for green cards. It would like to see an end to per-country limits that have caused long waits for immigrants from India, China, Mexico and the Philippines.

So far, some local administration critics say they haven't seen steps toward meaningful reforms, such as closing a loophole that has allowed some employers to displace U.S. workers with impunity.

Feist says lawmakers could also limit the number of visas each employer can secure and thereby undermine outsourcing companies. "Congress has the power to change everything if they want to," she said. "They don't want to. Instead, we are demonizing an entire visa category, and that's really disingenuous."

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.