Four US Senators urge Trump to suspend H-1B visas, OPT program in the face of historic unemployment

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NEW YORK – There is fresh trouble brewing for the beleaguered H-1B visa program, as well as for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows international students to work in an expansive capacity; some for as long as three years in the US after graduation. Four influential Senators have urged President Trump to put a stop to both the programs for at least a year, in the light of historic unemployment numbers.

The plea by the four Senators, in a letter addressed to Trump, on Thursday, came prior to the Labor Department revealing Friday that the economy shed more than 20.5 million jobs in April, sending the unemployment rate cascading to 14.7 percent.

The numbers are the worst since the Great Depression, and overwhelmingly more than the 8.7 million jobs lost in the last recession, when unemployment seemed what then was a staggering low of 10 percent in the fall of 2009.

The New York Times reported that the only comparable period is when unemployment reached about 25 percent in 1933, before the government began publishing official statistics.

For Republican Senators Tom Cotton (Arkansas), Ted Cruz (Texas), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), and Josh Hawley (Missouri), part of the problem of getting the economy back on track would be laid off American workers competing for jobs with new immigrants on work and student visas.

In their letter, they urged the President to suspend all new guest worker visas for 60 days – which the President recently did, on April 22, through an executive action that barred granting new Green Cards and entry into the US for new H-1B work visa holders; and to suspend certain categories of new guest worker visas for at least the next year, or until unemployment has returned to normal levels, after that time-frame of 60 days.

“While economic shutdowns in states and localities across the country have been necessary to reduce the spread of this pandemic, the results have been devastating for businesses and workers alike,” the letter says. “As you know, more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment coverage just since mid-March, and approximately one-fifth of the American workforce is currently out of work. This is a stunning difference compared with the historically-low nationwide unemployment rate of just 3.5 percent in February this year. The United States admits more than one million nonimmigrant guest workers every year, and there is no reason to admit most such workers when our unemployment is so high.”

The Senators argue that many businesses have had no choice but to lay off their employees or shutter altogether, and it is unclear when those businesses that survived will be able to rehire their lost employees.

While sharing the hope of many Americans, including Trump, that the economic recovery in the US will be swift, with Americans returning to work in massive numbers as soon as it is safe to do so, the Senators lamented that “unfortunately, it will likely take some time for most businesses to begin generating enough revenue to return to pre-pandemic levels. That is why, to protect unemployed Americans in the early stages of economic recovery, we urge you to suspend all nonimmigrant guest worker visas for the next sixty days.”

The Senators want Trump to include H-2B visas (nonagricultural seasonal workers), H-1B visas (specialty occupation workers), and the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program (extension of foreign student visas after graduation) in the new ban, as well as the EB-5 immigrant visa program, effective immediately.

The Senators pointed out that there are “millions of high school and college students who, if not for the coronavirus pandemic, would be walking across a graduation stage in front of their families and friends over the next few weeks. Instead of celebrating their hard work, most will be receiving their diplomas in the mail while worrying about whether they will be able to find a job in this market.”

They added that “for many high school graduates and college students, they will spend the next few weeks at home making tough decisions about delaying or foregoing college this fall due to their limited family resources. There is no reason why these young people, especially, should not have access to seasonal, nonagricultural work such as summer resort employment or landscaping before those positions are given to imported foreign labor under the H-2B program.”

The Senators want to give leeway for foreign health care professionals, writing, “likewise, there is no reason why unemployed Americans and recent college graduates should have to compete in such a limited job market against an influx of additional H-1B workers, most of whom work in business, technology, or STEM fields. Temporarily suspending the issuance of new H-1B visas would also protect the hundreds of thousands of H-1B workers and their families already working in the United States-workers who could otherwise be subject to deportation if they are laid off for more than 60 days. Of course, appropriate exceptions could also be crafted to the H-1B program suspension to allow for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who wish to come to the United States to assist in combating the coronavirus pandemic.”

The Senators hit out at the OPT program, a vital lifeline for international students who hope to work and gain permanent residency in the US after graduation.

“Additionally, the United States ought to suspend its Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows foreign students in the United States to extend their stay in the United States after graduation for 1-3 years to get “experience in the field” by taking jobs here in the United States. In 2019, more than 223,000 former foreign students had their OPT applications approved or extended. While the merits of such a program are subject to debate, there is certainly no reason to allow foreign students to stay for three additional years just to take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans as our economy recovers,” the letter says.

The Senators also came down hard on the controversial investment green card program, which has been supported by Jared Kushner too: “…we write to urge you to remove the exemption for the EB-5 program, at least until real reforms are adopted. The EB-5 program has long been plagued by scandal and fraud, and has been criticized as effectively functioning as a pay-for-citizenship scheme in many cases. There is no reason that the EB-5 program should receive preferential treatment as opposed to other green card programs for employment-based immigrants.”

The Senators urged the President to “keep the American worker in mind and limit the importation of unnecessary guest workers while American families and businesses get back on their feet.”

With elections around the corner, it’s highly likely that this letter would be the blueprint that Trump will follow to the last line when new restrictions are placed on legal immigration once his 60-day diktat gets over.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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