Citing the stark rise in unemployment levels amid the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump June 22 evening signed a proclamation temporarily banning foreign workers from entering the U.S.
Visa categories included in the ban are H-1B workers and their spouses, H-2B visas for non-agricultural workers; J visas for student exchange programs; and L visas for intra-company transfers. Exceptions were not made for health care workers, despite the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 113,000 U.S. residents.
Highly-skilled workers from India make up about 70 percent of the H-1B work force. Workers who were approved for the H-1B program during the April lottery will not be able to get visas to enter the U.S. and start their jobs this October, when the 2021 fiscal year begins.
Under heavy pressure from the agricultural industry, the president left intact the H-2A visa for farm-workers. The Optional Practical Training program, which allows foreign students to remain and work in the U.S. for up to 24 months post-graduation, was also left untouched: many analysts had earlier predicted that program would be scotched by the president’s decree.
The proclamation is set to take effect on June 24 and will be in place until Dec. 31. The ban applies to workers currently outside the U.S. However, a clause in the proclamation allows the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Labor, to continue the ban, if necessary, and to make modifications as needed.
Indian American immigration attorney Cyrus Mehta told India-West the clause is “pernicious” and could potentially be used against foreign workers who are in the U.S.
“The president is staying true to his creed to shut down the H-1B program, and he has found a way to do it now, using the pandemic as an excuse,” he stated. “This is going to hurt the economy rather than help it: tech workers have faced no higher levels of unemployment than other sectors,” he said.
In a tweet, Mehta stated: “This proclamation is in complete violation of the INA — the Immigration and Nationality Act — and should be blocked by a court soon.”
Indian American immigration attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla told India-West: “The Presidential Proclamation is not reasonably tied toward protecting U.S. jobs. Instead, it is just a continuation of this Administration opportunistically using COVID-19 to implement its anti-immigrant agenda.”
“The premise of this proclamation is that immigrants depress our economy, whereas every major non-partisan study concludes that immigrants have historically been critical to the growth of the U.S. economy,” she asserted.
Peddibhotla noted that U.S. employers have already invested thousands of dollars in finding and hiring talent for specific projects, and are unlikely to be able to re-invest and immediately hire new workers to fill those now-vacant positions.
“What’s to stop U.S. employers from just moving those job overseas?” she queried.
Technology jobs count for a tiny fraction of unemployment rates. The U.S. Labor Department reported 112,000 tech jobs were lost in April. Tech start-ups laid off 56,000 employees overall.
The National Foundation of American Policy analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics data to conclude that unemployment for computer occupations was not affected by the COVID pandemic. The unemployment rate for individuals in computer occupations declined from 3 percent in January to 2.8 percent in April. It fell again to 2.5 percent in May.
“New immigration restrictions based on a claim that computer occupations have been unduly harmed by the economic fallout from the coronavirus would be without a factual foundation,” said NFAP in a statement. “The data raises significant questions about the Trump Administration’s using the unemployment rate for computer professionals to justify the new restrictions on H-1B visa holders.” (See earlier India-West story: https://bit.ly/3dmhQXP)
In his proclamation, Trump stated: “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.”
“Temporary workers are often accompanied by their spouses and children, many of whom also compete against American workers,” he stated, implicitly referring to the H-4 Employment Authorization Document, which allows the spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in the U.S. H-4 EAD holders are largely women from India.
“Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy,” said the president. “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,” he added.
In a statement released shortly after Trump signed the proclamation, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, said: “I’m deeply disappointed by President Trump’s misguided order to suspend these key work visa programs. I urge him to reverse this decision to help ensure our health care system and broader economy are ready to combat the next phase of this pandemic and to create the jobs we need for our economic recovery.”
“The H-1B program in particular plays a crucial role in addressing our dangerous shortage of health care professionals while also providing other key sectors of our economy with talent from around the world to not only fill jobs, but create new ones. Suspending this program will only weaken our economy and our health care workforce at a time when the need to strengthen both is as clear as ever,” he said.
IANS adds: Briefing reporters about the reform plan, a senior official said that many Indian – and some U.S. – companies that act as subcontractors sponsoring workers on H-1B visas and deputing them once they are in the U.S. to work elsewhere could see their business model hit.
The official said that another reform would change the way the 85,000 annual H-1B visas are given from the current lottery system to one where the wages will determine who gets them.
Those offered the most wages will get priority instead of those hitting "a lucky number" in the lottery, the official said.
The official said that Trump wants the wage structure for H-1B visas to be changed from the current one set during the administration of former President Bill Clinton, and the new minimum will be the 50th percentile of the national income.
That is the median income or the middle of the range and is currently $63,000, according to the Census Bureau.
The official said that Trump wants the changes made as soon as possible "will do so by regulation as soon as we possibly can."
Under new rules announced June 22 by the immigration service, asylum applicants cannot apply for work authorization for a year instead of the current 150 days.
Basing the visas on the highest wages offered will help determine who will contribute the most to the U.S. economy, the official said.
The official said, "This will drive both the wage level and the skill level of the H-1B applicants up. It will eliminate competition with Americans, it will reduce American competition in these industries at the entry-level, and will do more to get the best and the brightest."