Trump Administration considering massive new changes to legal immigration

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump depart Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

NEW YORK – The death knell for new foreign work visas – long a cherished dream of conservatives and anti-immigration hawks – seems to be on the horizon.

Top publications, privy to White House sources, reported this week, that given the dire jobs scenario in the wake of the rampaging coronavirus pandemic, the Trump Administration plans to bar all new H-1B and L visa holders, among others, from emigrating to the US. Also on the chopping block: OPT extension for international students and work permit for spouse of a visa worker.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday the proposed suspension, which could be implemented sometime this month, could extend into the government’s new fiscal year, beginning October 1, when many new visas are typically issued.

That could bar any new H-1B holder outside the country from coming to work until the suspension is lifted, though visa holders already in the country are unlikely to be affected, according to unidentified sources in the Journal report.

“The administration is currently evaluating a wide range of options, formulated by career experts, to protect American workers and job seekers, especially disadvantaged and underserved citizens—but no decisions of any kind have been made,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

In addition to the H-1B visa, the suspension could apply to the H-2B visa for short-term seasonal workers, the J-1 visa for short-term workers including camp counselors and au pairs and the L-1 visa for internal company transfers, the Journal reported.

The administration plans to exempt some industries from the restrictions, such as health-care workers directly involved in treating Covid-19 patients and others critical to the food supply chain. The administration is also considering a broader carve-out allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can prove they can’t hire Americans for a given job.

MarketWatch reported on Thursday more than 47 million new jobless claims have been filed since the crisis took root three months ago,

American corporates and industry have for long resisted such drastic moves on legal immigration though, which has emanated in one cautious form or the other in Trump’s first term. They say that barring immigrants who fill unique skill sets or take jobs most Americans won’t perform would hamper economic growth rather than bolster it.

In a May 27 letter addressed to Mr. Trump, nine Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and John Cornyn (R., Texas) urged him to reconsider broad new restrictions on temporary work-visa programs, which the senators said would ultimately hurt U.S. businesses.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that 64% of adults said legal immigrants mostly fill jobs U.S. citizens don’t want. Trump had recently barred the issuing of new Green Card to immigrants overseas.

Senior officials at the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department have been working for several months on the recommendations, which they plan to bring to the president for final signoff as soon as this week, the people familiar with the talks said, reported the Journal.

Other changes under discussion would take longer to implement as formal regulations, but if adopted, would become permanent, they said.

The administration is also considering scaling back the Optional Practical Training program that allows international students to work on their student visas. The proposal would repeal an Obama-era extension allowing students with science or engineering degrees to work for three years, rather than the one year permitted all other students, and limit work permits only to those graduating at the top of their class.

It is also considering ending an Obama-era rule allowing spouses of H-1B workers to work on their visas. That could eliminate approximately 100,000 immigrants from the workforce over time, the Journal reported.

In addition, the administration is mulling a proposal to charge $20,000 to apply for H-1B visas, either by increasing the application fee or adding it as surcharge, the people familiar with the talks said. The H-1B application fee is currently $460, though some companies pay hundreds or thousands of dollars more in additional fees, the report said.

Other changes to the H-1B program being considered include narrowing the definition of qualifying specialty occupations and placing more requirements on companies hiring these workers as contractors. The administration may also shorten the length of H-1B visas for workers paid at the lowest pay tier and require pay increases for them upon renewal, the Journal reported.

The New York Times reported another development this week: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued an emergency rule on Thursday night barring colleges from granting virus relief funds to foreign and undocumented students, including tens of thousands protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, or DACA.

According to the Times, visa holders in the United States are not likely to be affected by the new Executive Order in the pipeline.

“Whether it’s restrictions to legal immigration or further gutting the asylum system, the goal to reduce immigration to its lowest level possible continues to be at the forefront of this administration’s decision-making,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy counsel the American Immigration Council, was quoted as saying by the Times.

Business immigration attorney Emily Neumann, in a blog on the rumors swirling on the new immigration strictures, pointed out “an area of concern is that the administration could seek to shorten the regulatory process and make changes happen more quickly by issuing interim final regulations.”

She added: “This type of regulation skips the normal notice and comment process and goes straight to a final regulation. It requires the government to have “good cause.” The administration may try to use the COVID-19 and unemployment situation to establish good cause for issuing an interim final rule. If the administration takes this route, we don’t know how quickly any change would take effect or what the impact would be on existing OPT, H-4 EAD, and H-1B holders.  If any regulatory changes are made this way, they would likely open the door for litigation to block the changes.”

The new development on the legal immigration front would cause further distress to visa holders stranded overseas because of travel restrictions in place, and limited availability of international flights to the US – if they qualify to be on one, that is.

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



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