The Trump administration on Monday announced it will suspend certain visas that allow foreigners to move to the U.S. temporarily to work, saying the broad restrictions will ease the economic impact of the coronavirus and improve the prospects of Americans looking for employment during the pandemic.
Several guest-worker programs will be halted starting Wednesday under a proclamation signed by President Trump that will add another layer of sweeping restrictions to an immigration system the administration has worked to overhaul both during and before the pandemic.
The order, which is slated to last until the end of the year, will suspend H-1B visas for those in specialized fields like the technology sector and most H-2B visas for non-agricultural seasonal workers. The other programs that will be restricted are: cultural exchange J-1 visas for au pairs and other short-term workers; visas for spouses of H-1B and H-2B holders; and L visas for companies to relocate employees to the U.S.
Professors and scholars will be excluded from the J-1 visa restrictions and prospective H-2B visa holders looking to work in the food processing industry will not be affected by the presidential directive. The proclamation does not affect applicants already in the U.S. or those abroad who have been issued a visa.
During a call with reporters Monday afternoon, a senior administration official said the new order is part of a multi-faceted strategy to prevent prospective immigrants and foreign workers from competing with Americans in the labor market. “President Trump is focusing on getting Americans back to work as quickly as possible after we’ve suffered this hit to our economy,” the official said, describing an “America first recovery.”
Over 20 million people in the U.S. were receiving unemployment benefits as of the week ending June 13, according to the Department of Labor.
Mr. Trump also announced Monday an extension of another set of visa restrictions he issued in April, also in response to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Along with pausing the diversity green card lottery, the April proclamation suspended certain visas for foreigners seeking to move to the U.S. permanently through petitions from their family members or prospective employers.
The White House estimates that both proclamations will free up 525,000 jobs by the end of the year, according to the senior administration official. An analysis by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 325,000 prospective temporary workers and immigrants could be denied entry through December under the two restrictions. The immediate impact of the measure may be limited, however, since the State Department stopped routine visa services in March and has yet to resume them.
In addition to the proclamation, the senior administration official said Mr. Trump instructed him and other advisers to implement major changes to the H-1B program, which currently has an annual cap of 85,000 visas that are awarded through a lottery system. The official said the administration will move to scrap the lottery and replace it with a system in which the applicants with the highest salary offers receive the allotted visas.
“This will drive both the wage level and the skill level of the H-1B applicants up,” the official said. “It will eliminate competition with Americans.”
Other measures include an unpublished regulation that the official said would make it more difficult for companies to replace U.S. labor with newly arrived workers, who are typically paid lower wages. The Department of Labor has also been directed by Mr. Trump to set higher wages for H-1B holders and to probe potential abuses in the program, the senior administration official added.
The administration on Monday also published the final version of a regulation that will render most border-crossers seeking asylum ineligible for work authorization. Under the rule, which is expected to take effect in late August, work permits will not be available to asylum-seekers who crossed the border illegally or to those convicted of certain crimes, like driving under the influence.
For the past three years, the Trump administration has argued that most migrants who trek to the southern border file meritless asylum claims to gain easy entry into the U.S. in search of job opportunities.
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, said there are legitimate concerns about some of the guest worker programs — including the ones for H-1B and J-1 visas. But she said the president’s proclamation will hurt U.S. companies that rely on foreign workers and not necessarily prompt them to hire American nationals.
“It’s definitely overdue that we have an examination of these programs and their effect on the U.S. job market, but that doesn’t mean that wholesale suspending them suddenly is going to be beneficial to U.S. workers — and it is certainly not going to be beneficial to employers,” Pierce told CBS News.
Using the coronavirus as the chief justification, the Trump administration is making major policy changes that would have been difficult to implement unilaterally before the pandemic, Pierce said.
“I don’t think that the administration would get away with this if it weren’t for the pandemic,” she said.
Sara Cook and Kristin Brown contributed to this report.