President Donald Trump has said he wants to halt immigration, while Americans face dizzying unemployment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – including temporary visas for skilled foreign workers and for foreign students attending university in the US.
More than 85,000 immigrants receive H-1B visas for skilled workers every year, including over 1,000 each for tech giants like Google and Amazon. Demand for these visas consistently exceeds supply.
But the New York Times reported Trump is considering banning the issuance of new visas in certain employment-based categories, including H-1B visas, and ending the optional practical training program or OPT, which allows foreigners with student visas to work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation, depending on their field of study.
If Trump goes ahead with that plan, it would disrupt job search for immigrants who rely on these programs and who for the most part have no other path to pursue a career in the U.S. Many employers would face challenges in fulfilling positions that require specialized skills, especially in STEM areas where there are well-documented labor shortages, that helps stimulate economic expansion and create jobs for native workers.
Republican lawmakers are urging Trump to suspend the H-1B and OPT programs for a year or until the unemployment rate, which has reached nearly 15 percent, return to normal levels.
“Given the extreme lack of available jobs for American job seekers as parts of our economy begin to reopen, common sense defies allowing additional foreign guest workers to compete for such limited employment,” Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, and Josh Hawley wrote in one letter to the White House on May 7.
The programs have their flaws, but closing them is unlikely to help the vast majority of Americans looking for work during this crisis. There have been cases of employers abusing programs to exempt US workers, mostly in the IT field, where relatively no jobs have been lost compared to other industries. Legislators on both sides agree that reform should prohibit the practice.
But ending programs completely would create uncertainty for employers facing a legitimate gap in their workforce, as well as for the Americans they employ. American universities, research institutes and the business communitytherefore, all of whom rely on these programs have lobbied against the Republicans’ proposal, but it is not clear whether the White House will respond to their concerns.
Trump ordered the administration to publish an interagency report on these visas, which should be Friday and could help justify any action he plans to take. Still, congressmen say they are skeptical that this government, which has historically suspended business interests on immigration issues, will continue to shut down the H-1B and OPT programs completely.
Experts say that modifying programs to ensure that foreign workers do not exempt Americans is preferable to ending them. Legislators in both sides have been requesting such reforms of the H-1B program for more than a decade, and Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley reintroduced the related legislation on Friday.
Trump’s mixed record in highly skilled immigration
Since his 2016 campaign, Trump has had both scolded against the H-1B program – which he said suppressed US wages and employment rates and is the high level of abuse of employers – and warned of a brain drain of foreign graduates.
“They’re going to Harvard, they’re going to Stanford, they’re going to Wharton, once they’re done, they’re going to be pushed out,” he said in 2016. “They want to stay in this country. They desperately want to stay here, they can’t stay here. To this end, we absolutely must be able to maintain brain capacity in this country. ”
Once in the office, Trump advocated creating a “based on earningsImmigration system that would favor the same type of immigrants currently benefiting from the H-1B and OPT programs – those with valuable skills, job offers, higher grades and higher wages – over those with family ties to the US. But he also drew the “Buy American and hire AmericanImplementing decision in April 2017 that increased the examination of H-1B applicants and resulted in a spike in refusals, and has been considering a regulation ending the OPT program for years.
This inconsistency can be explained by Trump’s desire to simultaneously satisfy both the Republican Party’s anti-immigration and pro-business wings, often on both sides of the debate on highly skilled immigration. At the start of the pandemic, Trump proposed to stop issuing all work visas, but the New York Times said reported he finally decided against it after pushback from business groups.
The US needs highly skilled foreign talent
The H-1B and OPT programs are pipelines for foreign talent, particularly in the fields of computer science, engineering, education and medicine.
The application process for H-1B visas is expensive and costs about $ 10,000 per employee, usually paid for by an employer. But without these visas, many companies claim that they would face difficulties in fulfilling jobs that require specialized skills or degrees. Business has therefore lobbied Congress in recent years to raise the limit for H-1B visas.
Postgraduate training through OPT can be a stepping stone to an H-1B for many overseas graduates from American universities, particularly in STEM areas. In 2019, the government received a record 220,000 applications for OPT, according to data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
For foreign students who decide to attend American universities, the prospect of working in the US after graduation is a major draw. According to the National Science Foundation, most foreign OPT students choose to stay in the U.S. and become contributing members of the scientific workforce.
“It is especially important to protect international experts and students and scientific research during a public health emergency, requiring experts to work constructively together to ensure the safety and health of people everywhere,” Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said in a pronunciation.
In the absence of the opportunity to work after graduation, foreign students may decide not to attend school in the US, which would be devastating for US universities that depend on their tuition fees. Universities have already experienced a bottleneck in recent years with a decline in enrollment rates among foreign students, who tend to pay more tuition than Americans, making a total of $ 39 billion in turnover. That could harm the quality of American higher education in a broader sense, universities have argued.
H-1Bs and OPT are vulnerable to abuse
While many companies face a legitimate gap in their workforce and pay their skilled foreign workers a reasonable wage, some employers have used H-1Bs and OPT to fill positions cheaply – sometimes at the expense of U.S. workers.
Federal guidelines state that the H-1B program must not “negatively affect the wages and working conditions” of Americans. The question of whether H-1B workers are generally underpaid and lower US wages has been difficult to answer, incentive disagreement among researchers. But it is clear that in fact employers have been able to use the H-1B program to expel Americans.
Most employers do not have to prove that they have advertised a job with Americans and that there are no qualified Americans available to fill the position before hiring an H-1B employee. That has enabled companies to Disney to the electricity company Southern California Edison to the producer of the antibody test of coronavirus Abbott Labs to fire American workers and replace them with H-1B workers on lower salaries – in some cases even to instruct American workers to train their replacements.
Often companies use outsourcing companies who bring employees, mainly from India, into H-1Bs to perform IT functions. The largest of these companies, Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys, consistently receive more H-1Bs than even the largest US technology companies.
These practices are all completely legal. But they have sparked a debate over whether the H-1B program works as it was intended and is complementary rather than competing with the U.S. workforce.
“The H-1B is an important path for bringing skilled people here,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. “But I do think the way it is used is one big loophole in the enterprise. We need to regulate it in a way that is fair to both the American workers who should have a chance to sign up and the migrant workers who enter through no fault of their own, are underpaid and used as pawns. “
The OPT program has even less regulation. There is no set minimum wage for OPT workers, which means that a foreign graduate could have a full-time job but pay little or nothing.
Employers also don’t have to show that there are no qualified Americans available before hiring someone on OPT, although a National Foundation for American Policy 2019 study by economist Madeline Zavodny found “no evidence that foreign students participating in the OPT program are reducing job opportunities for US workers.” In fact, the study found that the more STEM fields foreign students are approved for OPT, the lower the unemployment rate among U.S. workers in those areas.
Republicans and Democrats have embraced reform efforts
Grassley and Durbin introduced a bill on Friday that would suppress the outsourcing of companies that rely on H-1Bs and require companies to look for qualified U.S. candidates before hiring H-1B employees.
The bill, identical to the bill they submitted in 2017, is made possible in part by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Richard Blumenthal and has a companion at home. The first version of the bill was introduced in 2007.
The bill would prohibit replacing US workers with H-1B receivers and bar companies from firing US workers 180 days before and after hiring an H-1B worker.
It would also change the way H-1B visas are allocated, eliminating the lottery system currently selecting recipients of the visas and creating a “preference system” instead. Foreign graduates from U.S. universities, higher-level graduates, people with high salaries, and those with valuable skills are given priority.
It would also require all employers to show that they have made a good faith effort to recruit Americans and that none were available before offering an H-1B receiver a job – a requirement that employers hiring students on OPT should also face, Costa said.
These restrictions would make it much more difficult for outsourcing companies to dominate the H-1B program and release visas for the good-faith employers excluded from the program, Grassley and Durbin have argued.
‘[These reforms] improve access to the best and brightest foreign workers, guard against the exploitation of foreign workers, and prevent more American jobs from being shipped overseas, “said Grassley. wrote in Fortune in 2017. “And most importantly, they put the Americans first – a common refrain of President Trump.”