Frank Islam (Washington): On June 22, President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending the entry of a number of non-immigrant work visa holders into the US till the end of the year.
The visa categories affected by the executive order include, most notably, H-1B, which has been used by more than a million Indian IT professionals and tens of thousands of Pakistan doctors since the 1990s and the L-1 visa used by US companies to bring in workers from their Indian offices.
On July 6, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took it a step further when it announced a new regulation on nonimmigrant student visa holders requiring them to take in-person classes only and to leave the country if they do not. These visas permit students to participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT) which allows them to take jobs and stay in the U.S. for up to three years after graduating from college.
It is estimated that during the 2018-2019 academic year, over 200,000 international students participated in OPT. This explains why pre-eminent higher education institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins have brought a lawsuit against the ICE regulation. And, seventeen states have sued to block this regulation because of the negative effect it would have on the higher education institutions and communities within their boundaries.
The student visas were not on President Trump’s radar screen but H-1b visas have been for some time. During his campaign for President four years ago, candidate Trump consistently railed against the H-1B Programme.
However, after he moved into the White House, Trump left the visa Programme untouched for the first 43 months of his presidency, even as he delivered on most of his controversial campaign promises, such as the Muslim ban and dumping of multilateral treaties like NAFTA and Paris Agreement, through executive actions.
There were two primary reasons Trump didn’t act on the visa Programme until now. The US economy had been doing very well until Coronavirus hit the American shores early this year. And, the tech industry, which employs three-fourths of the H-1B visa holders, had been doing even better.
The second reason is the formidable lobbying power of the U.S. technology industry. The four most valuable companies in the world, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, and Facebook have historically used the H-1B workforce to augment their profits. They were not going to let those go without a fight.
The influence these technology organizations wield was evident when Trump spared H-1B in his first executive order to curb nonimmigrant work visa holders issued on April 22. According to reports, H-1B was to be part of that proclamation but the White House was talked out of it by the industry.
What changed for the President between April 22 and late June 22?
A number of things, but primarily it was Trump’s dimming re-election prospects. A steady stream of polls over the past few weeks has shown that the incumbent is trailing badly in the race against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The President’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic — his initial refusal to see it as a threat and then his inability to provide the leadership to contain it — has shaken people’s confidence in Trump’s presidency.
Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus, Trump was banking on making the election a referendum on his stewardship of the economy. But the pandemic, which has claimed more than 137,000 American lives to date and also temporarily eliminated up to 40 million jobs.
Although some of the jobs have come back thanks to the multitrillion-dollar stimulus package, the re-opening plans promoted by Trump have not produced substantial results. Now, with parts of the country closing down again, and the deadly virus spreading in southern and western states, there’s no sign of the economy turning the corner before the November election.
Consequently, Trump needs to be seen as doing something to save the economy and American jobs. H-1B, which has been a bogeyman for the protectionists and economic nationalists, is an easy target during this downturn.
This is the case in spite of the fact that study after study has documented that the visa Programme actually helps create jobs. For example, the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) economic analysis says international students contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs in the US during the 2018-2019 academic year.
The Institute of International Education, a nonprofit, estimates that over 1 million foreign students – including 8000+ Pakistani – study in US universities and colleges annually. The revenue they generate for the institutions they attend and the economic benefits for communities in which they reside is substantial.
Nonetheless, The Trump administration claims that the executive order is going to save more than half a million American jobs without giving details. This assertion appeals to his base and that is all that matters to them.
It should be noted that the H-1B order mainly impacts petitioners who are outside of the US who have not gotten their visas stamped on their passports yet. As a result, it will have little effect in the short term on those seeking work in the US.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Service issues roughly 85,000 new H-1B visas annually of which 20,000 are for those with US master’s degrees. Most petitioners in this category are already in the US and they will not have any problem in starting their jobs in October, typically the time new visa holders enter the workforce.
According to immigration attorneys, a significant percentage of the remaining 65,000 visas are claimed by dependents of H-1B and L-1 visa holders, as well as foreign students who have graduated from US schools, but did not get the visa under the master’s degree quota. These groups will also not come under the purview of the executive order, as they are already in the country.
The real impact of the presidential proclamation, therefore, will be two-fold. First, as long as Trump is President, it will undoubtedly cause many international students, who are looking at the US as a potential destination for higher education studies to reconsider their decisions. During the Trump era, the US has already been losing potential students to nations such as Canada, Britain, and Australia.
Second, despite the massive job losses in the broader economy, there are still vacancies in the tech industry that will have to be filled to move America forward. The US tech sector has said for years that the country doesn’t produce enough skilled workers and the industry will suffer without the intake of manpower through H-1B and L1 visa programmers and the potential loss of OPT workers. If it becomes more difficult for these companies to hire foreign workers, they would probably outsource more and more of these jobs to foreign destinations, including India.
It is an irony that, while Trump is trying to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, his nonimmigrant worker visa policy and ICE’s student visa regulation could force more high-paying service jobs offshore. What makes it doubly ironic is that this action which Trump has taken to try to save his job as President will not do so.
Given the current state of affairs, it is likely that on election day November 4, the American people will fire Donald Trump. After that, the decision on what to do with information technology visas in 2021 and going forward will be in someone else’s hands. And, Trump will have to find a new place of employment for himself.
The good news is that Joe Biden has already stated that his administration will lift the H-1B ban. As far as the issue of foreign students is concerned, the Democrats’ approach is evident from a tweet of Senator Bernie Sanders:
“Foreign students are being threatened with a choice: risk your life going to class in-person or get deported. We must stand up to Trump’s bigotry. We must keep all our students safe.”
These are trying and transitional times for professionals and students from countries outside the United State. In 2021 with a new administration in Washington, D.C. the times will get better for them and for America as well.
(Frank F. Islam is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)