President Trump will be signing an executive order and implementing a series of new regulations that will temporarily halt specific types of guest worker visas and make permanent changes to the H-1B visa program.
In April, Trump signed an executive order preventing the issuance of new green cards for 60 days. The new order extends that guidance through December 31, 2020 and also temporarily suspends the issuance of new visas through the H-1B and H-2B programs, as well as some visas through the J-1 and L-1 programs. The order intends to lower foreign competition for the tens of millions of newly unemployed Americans during the economic shutdown resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak. The May unemployment rate dropped slightly to 13.3 percent from 14.7 percent in April, but is still significantly higher than the February rate of 3.5 percent.
Agricultural and food service workers are exempt from the suspension due to concerns that limiting those workers would too drastically affect the food supply. Medical professionals will not enjoy the same broad exemptions they did in April, with the administration citing the high number of furloughed health care employees in the current economy. Medical professionals will now only be exempt from the suspension if their work is specifically related to the coronavirus.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said the order and other new regulations are expected to open up 500,000 jobs for Americans between now and the end of the year:
‘The President views us as far from the kind of economy he wants for the American people. And he wants to try to accelerate the rehiring of Americans by making sure these five hundred thousand plus jobs are held open for them and for the rest of 2020. And as I mentioned, he’s instructed us to make some long term changes that are going to make Americans competitive and will eliminate some open market work by foreign nationals who are not here legally and also really move in the direction of a merit based system.’
The inclusion of H-1B visas, which are reserved for immigrants that are considered high-skilled labor, and H-2B visas, which are more broadly available for non-agricultural laborers, was considered in April. After some chatter in the White House, however, the April order was stripped back to only include green cards.
In addition to the temporary suspension of new visas, Trump will be making key permanent changes to the H-1B visa program through a separate set of regulations.
One notable change is the elimination of a well-known and oft-exploited loophole that allows companies to replace American workers with H1B visa recipients as long as they are paying $60,000 and above per employee or hiring workers with Master’s degrees. Disney was infamously accused of forcing high-skilled American workers to train their foreign replacements, who were given much lower salaries.
H-1B visas will also no longer be issued via a lottery system. Instead, the available number of visas will be issued to the petitioners with the top salary offers. Similarly, all H-1B recipients must be making over the 50th percentile in wages of wherever they are working in the country. Accepting visa applicants with higher salaries will presumably prevent foreign workers from driving down domestic wages.
Cuccinelli said these changes reflect the President’s ‘worry about the people at the margin, the people who lose their jobs first when the economy gets bad. And it takes them the longest to get back into work.’
‘This will create a lot more space for Americans to enter these job industries at the bottom part of the wage scale,’ he explained.
Immigration hardliners have already pointed to one exemption in the executive order that they say could make the H-1B and H-2B suspensions toothless. The exemption allows the State Department and Department of Labor to identify immigrants who are deemed to be in the ‘economic national interest’. Cuccinelli noted that this exemption existed under the April order as well and applies to unique individuals rather than categories of people.
‘It’s unique to the individuals on the economic side,’ Cuccinelli explained. ‘Otherwise, it’s the other things that you might normally expect…diplomacy, security, law enforcement, humanitarian, those sorts of things.’
‘It isn’t like a whole lot of people came in to that exemption,’ he added.
Trump will also order the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to permanently eliminate work permits for individuals with final removal orders.
‘The President is most concerned about how the economy is affecting ordinary Americans and the actions he’s taking today are intended to lead what amounts to an “America first” recovery,’ Cuccinelli said.