NEW YORK – President Trump’s decision to suspend many of the legal work visas that bring in hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to the shores of the United States every year, through the end of 2020, has drawn criticism from industry lobbyists. However, it’s a decision that in a coronavirus pandemic-embattled world, seems not just politically motivated to draw voters, but a necessary and reasonable one, to help American workers back on their feet, and reduce unemployment numbers.
The restrictions, including on H-1B visa, H-4, and L category visas that are dominated by workers and their families from India, will prevent new foreign workers from filling 525,000 jobs, according to the administration’s estimates.
“American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work,” the proclamation, signed by Trump as an Executive Order, stated. “Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy. But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers.”
There are caveats in the restrictions, though.
The freeze on ‘cultural exchange’ J visas will include exemptions for applicants whose entry is considered to be in the US national interest, a loophole potentially available to the roughly 20,000 people who come to the United States annually as au pairs to provide child care for families.
Julie M. Weise, a historian at the University of Oregon, who is at work on a global history of post-WWII temporary labor migrants, writing in The Washington Post, pointed out that H-2A or “guest worker” visas, availed by farm workers mostly, will remain largely unaffected. So far this year, the Trump administration is approving H-2A visas at a rate 15 percent faster than last year, and it took steps to make it easier for farmers to hire temporary farmworkers even after the pandemic began.
Trump’s decision to suspend work visas for now is one that even the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seems to have accepted as common sense. He hasn’t responded to any of the legal immigration restrictions coming from the White House. One of the staunchest anti-immigration lawmakers, is in fact, one of the senior most Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Dick Durbin, from Illinois, who has been rooting for immigration reforms.
The US jobless rate skyrocketed in the past three months, peaking at nearly 15 percent in April and standing at 13.3 percent in May. That is the highest level since the Great Depression and a nearly fourfold increase since February, when the rate was 3.5 percent, reported the New York Times.
While pro-immigration advocates may cry foul, at the heart of the issue is also that even as many companies in America, and elsewhere globally, are exploring doing away with office space, and expanding remote work from home, it would be political hara-kiri for Trump to have brought in at least 85,000 new foreign workers this fall to fill in office spaces which perhaps don’t exist anymore, or might not in the near future.
Trump’s decision will go down with majority of Americans, regardless of political stripe.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll published last month found that 65% of Americans support a temporary halt on nearly all immigration during the pandemic, with 34% opposed. Republicans and independents support such restrictions by a wide margin, the poll found, while Democrats were split, according to a Post report.
Mark Krikorian, whose Center for Immigration Studies has urged the Trump administration for years to adopt such restrictions, called Trump’s order “a significant victory over corporate interests.”
Krikorian and others in the GOP who favor such restrictions have long argued that guest worker programs displace U.S. workers and drive down their wages. They have been battling other Republicans for control of the party’s immigration platform.
“This is a victory for the immigration hawks within in the White House,” Krikorian said. “Maybe it took the pandemic to help them overcome the pressure from lobbyists to keep the cheap labor coming.”
A Vox report noted that lawmakers in both parties agree that work visas shouldn’t displace American workers. It noted that Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys consistently receive more H-1Bs than even the largest US tech companies.
Also, reports of companies like Disney, Southern California Edison and Abbott Labs, among others who laid off US workers and replaced them with H-1B workers, and in some cases, even ordering the US workers to train their replacements, made national news, and didn’t find support from Americans.
Trump’s decision has a downside to it, though, with more job losses on the home front because of the visa suspensions.
About 15,000 Homeland Security Department employees were to receive reduction-in-force notices, warning them of upcoming furloughs in July if Congress does not provide emergency funding, reported Govexec.com.
Officials at USCIS, a fee-funded agency, told employees last month that a significant drop off in application receipts due to the novel coronavirus pandemic has led to an unexpected loss in revenue, potentially leaving the agency unable to meet payroll. USCIS is asking Congress for a $1.2 billion cash injection to help offset the losses and permission for a 10% increase its fees to reimburse the appropriation.
Visa processing at US consulates abroad already has plunged, even before the new suspension. Last month, the United States granted just more than 40,000 nonimmigrant visas, down from 670,000 in January.