President Trump unleashed American workers to begin the coronavirus recovery Monday, announcing a series of immigration moves that will block hundreds of thousands of new foreign workers the rest of this year and push businesses to offer better pay to those who do come in the future.
Defying the Washington consensus that has long supported higher immigration, Mr. Trump said he’s betting on American workers to lead the country out of the coronavirus-induced slump.
He issued a proclamation tripling the size of his immigration pause, blocking about 525,000 visas that would have been issued over the next six months and, he hopes, saving those spaces for Americans.
His administration also took steps to stop awarding work permits to migrants who entered the U.S. illegally and then claimed asylum or lodged a plea for some other special treatment. Currently they can apply to work while their cases are pending, which Trump aides said creates an incentive to game the system.
The president also directed his administration to pursue new regulations to raise salaries for guest-workers who come on high-skilled H-1B visas, and to tighten the rules so companies can’t oust Americans and then replace them with H-1B workers to do the same job.
“The point here is to put American workers first when businesses are rehiring,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told The Washington Times.
Activists called it a historic moment, saying no president in modern times has so closely linked immigration policy to an economic recovery.
“This is a bold move and it’s an absolutely necessary move,” said Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA. “No matter where you are on the skill level, you’re going to have a better opportunity to find your next job — whether you are lower-skilled and looking for a job in landscaping or construction, or whether you have some kind of STEM degree or are looking for a white-collar job.”
But business and technology interest groups said the move would backfire, sapping the economy of foreign work it needs to grow.
“The Trump administration should stop trying to create and exploit crises to enact the largest cuts to legal immigration in a century,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us. “This is deeply harmful to America.”
Immigrant-rights groups, meanwhile, complained the move was meant to distract from the president’s coronavirus response, and called it evidence of “racism and white supremacy.”
But the White House said it is those on the lower economic rungs — including African Americans and Hispanics — who stand to benefit the most, since they are most likely to compete with guest workers.
Congressional Democrats were largely silent on the president’s moves Monday, and administration officials said that was no surprise.
“These are the kinds of things people on the other side of the aisle have supported in the past,” Mr. Cuccinelli told The Times.
The H-1B visa and other guest-worker programs have long been targets for the likes of Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, a leading Democratic voice on immigration, or Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the party’s runner-up for its presidential nomination the last two times.
Monday’s order expands Mr. Trump’s original immigration pause, announced two months ago, which blocked about 25,000 green cards, or permanent legal migrants, each month.
At the time, Mr. Trump didn’t touch any of the temporary worker programs. Instead he ordered Homeland Security and the Labor Department to examine more options, and Monday’s announcement was the result.
For the rest of the year, the administration will curtail issuance of H-1B visas, supposed to be used by high-skilled workers; H-2B visas, meant for seasonal non-agriculture work such as landscaping or resort workers; H-4 visas, which allow family of H-1B employees to also work; J visas for exchange programs, such as au pairs; and L visas that facilitate intra-company transfers.
That’s in addition to continuing the pause on most green cards.
There are limited exceptions for people deemed critical to national security or to the coronavirus recovery.
As big as those changes are, they are short-term, meant to create openings during the coronavirus recovery.
The long-term changes could reshape the way tech companies operate, forcing them to look first to American workers and to raise wages for those foreign workers they do still hire, creating an upward push on pay overall.
To do that, Homeland Security will propose a rewrite of how H-1B visas are doled out. Currently they are issued by lottery, and 225,000 applications were submitted for 85,000 slots last year. Under the new proposal, the highest-paying 85,000 jobs will get visas.
The result will be upward pressure on wages — and soul-searching at the companies that make the most use of the program.
“Employers will actually have to ask themselves how much do I really want this foreign worker, as opposed to hiring an American worker,” Ms. Jenks said.
The administration also will issue new regulations requiring that the minimum pay be at least 50% of the local prevailing wage, which could tamp down on businesses trying to use the visas to cut costs by avoiding American workers.
And officials said the Labor Department will begin investigating complaints of companies that abuse the H-1B program.
Michael Clemens, an immigration economist at the Center for Global Development, said the notion that H-1B workers compete with Americans is an economic fiction.
“This mindless ban will show the world’s best and brightest that the United States is no place for them,” he said. “Some of the damage will be permanent.”
For years, academics have debated the actual effects of foreign migrant competition. They’re about to get a very real-world test.
The Seasonal Employment Alliance, a trade group for businesses that use H-2B workers, says it has already been conducting its own tests.
During coronavirus the SEA has been running online ads in major markets linking to a jobs bank with thousands of openings, at an average wage of $15 an hour. The SEA says it gets hundreds of thousands of eyeballs each week, but the applications aren’t rolling in.
Mr. Cuccinelli, though, said those companies need to pay better.
“There are workers out there,” he said. “The pay isn’t meeting the demand. Given the unemployment rate, I would think those two would come together.”
The administration is also using this moment to complete a long-standing quest to block illegal immigrants from gaming the system by claiming asylum then applying for work permits while their cases proceed.
Under new rules being published in the Federal Register later this week, those who win asylum will get work permits. But the vast majority fail to win their cases, yet have been granted years of work permission in the interim.
Those changes take effect later this summer.
Left out of the president’s immigration pause is the EB-5 visa, also known as the “golden visa” because it allows wealthy foreigners to buy into the pathway to citizenship for a minimum investment of $900,000, which will continue. The Chinese are the biggest users of the program, which is rife with fraud.
Mr. Cuccinelli said as an investor program, EB-5 can create jobs in the U.S., so it makes sense to keep it going to help fuel the recovery.
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