The Trump administration’s executive order this week dramatically curtailing legal immigration to the US sent hundreds of people and businesses into a scramble to understand whether their future plans are now derailed.
The employment-based visas targeted by the administration are tailored for a range of jobs in the US, including in health care, education and tech industries. There are some exceptions, like people treating Covid-19 patients or conducting research to help the US combat the pandemic. Still, thousands stand to be affected.
The Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, estimates some 167,000 temporary workers will be kept out of the United States as a result of the new restrictions, which took effect on Wednesday.
The administration argued, in the proclamation, that the “extraordinary circumstances” posed by coronavirus called for the suspension of employment-based visas. But immigrant advocates, industries, and experts say the administration is taking advantage of the pandemic to make sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration system and advance its agenda to slash legal immigration.
‘I was devastated’
Only 24 hours after the White House issued its order, Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney based in Tennessee, had already heard from more than 200 people who are afraid, worried and uncertain about their future through a form he posted on Twitter.
Since then, Siskind has been fielding hundreds of questions from people who immigrated to the US, or planned to, on employment-based visas.
“The whole ban is about trying to help US workers to get US jobs. It seems to be counter-productive,” Siskind, whose clients are impacted by the new restrictions, told CNN. “You can go basically to every visa on the list and figure out some kind of disastrous economic consequences that particular industry is going to face.”
The entries Siskind received detail the varying circumstances many are finding themselves in, including physicians worried that future medical residents from overseas may not be able to come, foreign employees unsure whether they’ll be able to return to work at US companies, individuals working on research at universities, and families who may remain separated.
Among them was Sunil Venugopal, who’s on an H-1B visa and working in Austin, Texas, as an engineer. While Venugopal won’t be impacted since he’s already in the US, the visa category that applies to his wife is included in the restrictions. His wife, Snehal, traveled to India with their infant daughter in January to introduce the baby to their family. Then the pandemic struck, shutting down travel and consulates.
Over the last few months, the visa for Venugopal’s wife has lapsed, and she’s now considered to be among those barred from entering the US. “I was devastated,” Venugopal said about the news about the proclamation.
“I have to work in the location I’m supposed to work, so I’m stuck in Austin,” he told CNN. “I have no choice, but I have to stay here all alone.”
Venugopal expects to be separated from his wife and 11-month-old daughter through the rest of the year.
Businesses who employ foreign workers under these visas are also taking a unique hit.
Nandini Nair, an immigration partner at Greenspoon Marder based in New Jersey, represents a range of companies, including tech, marketing and accounting firms, as well as physician and dental offices. Nair heard from companies almost immediately after the proclamation.
“I have companies who are thinking that’s it; we’re not going to move anyone over anymore,” Nair said.
Some companies had already spent thousands of dollars on visa processing. Nair said she’s engaged in conversations with businesses who are wondering whether they should expand their operations overseas, instead of in the US.
Sandra Feist, an immigration attorney based in Minnesota, has similarly had human resource professionals reaching out on behalf of their companies worried about the employees they planned to onboard. Feist recalled a conversation where she was told that if the company can’t get their chief operating officer to the US, “that’ll be doom for them.”
Advantaging American workers?
The Trump administration and immigration restrictionists say the idea is to ban foreign workers and instead give American workers the advantage while there’s a high unemployment rate.
The White House laid out its reasoning in the proclamation: “American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work.”
The proclamation continues: ‘Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy. But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers.”
The proclamation is in effect until the end of the year. It applies to people outside the US and doesn’t apply to lawful permanent residents, spouses or children of a US citizen, or those already in the US.
NumbersUSA, which supports reduced immigration, said in a statement: “For the more than 45 million Americans who have lost their jobs during this pandemic, this EO represents real opportunity to regain employment at a livable wage.”
In a call with reporters on Monday, a senior administration official estimated that the restrictions block foreign workers from taking about 525,000 jobs.
But critics argue that misses the point.
“I think this is easily the most severe action the administration has taken so far against legal immigrants,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
“The April proclamation on banning immigration, those numbers will be redistributed to different categories. But banning these non-immigrant categories, you’re actually damaging a future immigration stream to the US,” she added, referring to an earlier executive order that barred people migrating from overseas.
This week’s proclamation is part of a series of immigration policy changes made by the administration, citing the coronavirus pandemic. In April, the White House also issued an order largely barring the issuance of green cards. That order has also been extended to the end of the year.
But even absent those changes, obtaining visas has been nearly impossible for people overseas because consulates have been closed. For many of those abroad, that’s meant waiting for a consulate to open for visa processing only to find out now that they may not be able to come at all.