Editor’s Note: Susan Cohen is the founding chair of the immigration practice at Mintz in Boston. Jennifer Hunt served as chief economist at the US Department of Labor and is a professor of economics at Rutgers University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
President Trump’s latest executive order, which introduces restrictions on several temporary work visas and extends restrictions on the entry of new green card holders, will only serve to prevent some of the brightest immigrant workers from entering the United States and from helping our economy to grow.
The order prohibits foreign workers from using H-1B, H-2B, J-1 and L-1 visas to enter the United States until at least the end of the year. Companies use L-1 visas to transfer employees from an overseas office, while the H-1B visa is granted to foreign workers in specialty occupations. H-2B visas are for unskilled seasonal workers, including landscapers, forestry workers and summer resort workers, while J-1s are for exchange visitors who come for short stays, typically for summer work, brief internships or to be au pairs.
The president claims putting further constraints on these visas will protect American workers in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. We know otherwise.
A 2017 panel of experts at the National Academy of Science found that immigration increases economic growth while having no negative impact on native employment and little or no impact on average native wages. The only significant budgetary pressure immigrants added was the cost of public schooling for their children. Yet, according to the Migration Policy Institute, Trump’s order will exclude 325,000 new immigrants, on top of the 52,000 excluded in May and June, from entering the country.
Immigration naturally declines during a recession, and the travel restrictions and consulate closures associated with the Covid-19 pandemic have further served to prevent many immigrants from entering the United States. The additional restrictions will prevent immigration from rebounding when the worst of Covid-19 has passed and increased population would provide economic stimulus. Workers prevented from taking up job offers may instead move permanently to another country, depriving the United States of their contributions. And workers receiving US job offers in 2021 may hesitate to accept them even if the restrictions are not extended further.
The foreign workers in the affected visa categories are carefully selected and sponsored by their American employers. They commit to sponsoring workers who have proven themselves to be the best candidate for the job, outperforming the competition in interviews and the vetting processes. Sponsoring workers in these visa categories is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, one that businesses undertake only after extensive cost-benefit evaluations.
The damage from freezing entries on H-1B visas is particularly clear. Although the H-1B specialty worker visa program is tiny — just under 139,000 new H-1B visas were issued in 2019 — these workers contribute in outsize ways. They are largely concentrated in computer science, engineering and science — areas that are fundamental drivers of economic growth. Their creativity is astonishing: They file patents at nearly double the rate of native-born Americans. Top scholars from around the world join the faculty of American universities on H-1B visas. And as more of us continue to work remotely, whether by choice or necessity, H-1B workers’ contribution to filling the jobs that support and power online platforms takes on an even greater urgency, reflected in the unemployment rate of 3.7% in computer occupations in May.
Workers arriving in the United States are likely to make the largest economic contribution when the employer is best informed about how well the worker will fit the job. This makes workers with L-1 intracompany transferee visas likely to be particularly productive, because they are already employed and on the payrolls of their companies. These are valued multinational employees whose US roles require their intimate and hard-earned understanding of their company’s business objectives and products.
Less-skilled workers also contribute to the American economy by diversifying the skills of the workforce, and lower inflows of this type will also be a hindrance once the recovery begins. For example, US companies hire H-2B workers as a last resort when they cannot find enough workers to meet their customers’ needs.
The primary goal of the J-1 visa is not economic, however: It is administered by the State Department to encourage Americans and foreign visitors to share international cultures and to promote the image of the United States abroad.
Suspending H-1B, L-1, H-2B and J-1 visas, even as a temporary response to Covid-19 concerns, is a misguided move. Banning hundreds of thousands of foreign workers hand-picked by their US employers will not result in an equal number of American job opportunities. It will neither protect the American workforce nor jumpstart the economy.