Trump’s COVID-19 visa bans may alter the face of American immigration beyond the pandemic

The president’s executive orders barring several types of visas and green cards will most affect immigrant hopefuls from Asian, African and Latino countries.

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Photo by Max Herman

Students from Harold Washington College present a parade of flags during Illinois' seventh annual U.S. Constitution and Citizenship Day celebration on September 16, 2015.

President Donald Trump’s recent immmigration orders mean that those abroad who hoped to join their family members in the United States this year, or join the American workforce in sectors like computer science or tech that rely heavily on foreign workers, have to bide their time until at least 2021. 

In a blow to many in search of the American Dream,  an executive order issued last month bars entry to most types of foreign workers for the rest of the year, banning most types of temporary work visas, including the coveted H-1B visa for skilled workers. 

Citing coronavirus-related job losses as its primary driver, the order suspends H-1B visas, L visas for intra-company transfers, H-2B visas for seasonal workers and J visas issued to cultural exchange visitors or those on internships. Anyone who might accompany such visa-holders is also now barred from entry — including dependents on H4 visas. 

These sweeping restrictions expand on a previous pandemic-related immigration suspension order issued on April 22, which impacted individuals applying for immigration, a broad category that includes those applying for legal permanent residency, or a “green card,” or any kind of family-based visa.

Per the administration, the moves are meant to aid American workers during the economic recovery, with the new order stating that “the present admission of workers within several nonimmigrant visa categories also poses a risk of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery.”

Immigration advocates have reacted strongly against the measures, arguing that the Trump administration is using the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue an aggressive anti-immigration agenda. Meanwhile, immigrants and their families are worried for their futures and fear that these temporary bans are merely a sign of even stronger restrictions to come. Just this week, a new directive issued by the Trump administration forces current international students to choose between staying in the country, switching universities or risking deportation if their universities switch to online-only courses

Targeting immigrants from African, Asian and Latino countries

Trump’s latest ban prevents an estimated 167,000 workers and others who were seeking to migrate here on a temporary basis, according to Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration advocacy group. He says the April order affects as many as 158,000 people who wished to migrate permanently — bringing the total number of immigrant hopefuls impacted by pandemic-related immigration orders to 325,000. 

The H-1B visa ban would largely affect high-skilled foreign workers from India and China, mainly employed in technology and other STEM sectors. Indians constituted 72% of the nearly 388,000 H-1B visa petitions that were approved in fiscal year 2019, while Chinese applicants accounted for 13%.

The move has been met with fierce opposition from major tech companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Twitter, which argued that immigrants contribute to their growth and that the move reduces Silicon Valley’s global competitiveness. Last year, Google and Amazon benefited from around 9,000 H-1B visas each, Business Insider reported

Besides introducing work visa restrictions, the June 22 order also extends the operation of the April immigration ban until December 31, 2020, extending the wait period for those in line for a diversity immigrant visa, family-based visas or permanent residency. The diversity immigrant visa program grants a pathway to a green card annually to more than 50,000 people from countries underrepresented in the U.S. immigrant inflow, and has been called “the only chance much of the world has to try to immigrate to the US.” 

This is not the Trump administration’s first attempt to target the diversity visa — cancelling the program was reportedly one of four pillars in the immigration framework the While House laid out in 2018. In January 2020, the administration had banned various immigrant visas, including diversity visas, for the nationals of Kyrgyzstan and Burma, along with four African countries: Tanzania, Sudan, Eritrea, and Nigeria, the largest African nation. 

“It is clear that the administration is trying to restrict immigration from Africa,” Fasika Alem, programs director at the United African Organization, an Illinois coalition that works for African immigrant rights, said at the time, pointing out that diversity visas had the greatest benefit for Africa. 

While Africans and Eastern Europeans have benefited the most from the diversity visa in recent years and will thus be the most impacted by its ban, it’s those from Asian and Latino countries who are the most impacted by the April ban on family-based visas. 

Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, based in Chicago, says that the suspension of family-based immigrant visas particularly affected the Asian American community because standard immigration-based applications form “about 80% of the applications filed each year” by members of the community. 

The countries with the longest waitlist for family-based immigration visas are China, India, Philippines and Mexico, McKibben says. “It does disproportionately impact Asian countries and Latino countries too, because those are the countries that have folks waiting the longest, and the largest number of people waiting to get immigrant visas to the US.”

In the past, Trump has made no secret of his objections to “chain-migration,” and the administration has sought to end family-based immigration as well. 

“The Trump administration is using the current pandemic as an excuse to exclude certain groups of people,” McKibben says. 

The order does make some exceptions — those already in the U.S. with a valid visa are not affected by it. The proclamation has also excluded those working in the food supply industry, those whose admission is “in the national interest,” and spouses and children of U.S. citizens. Students on optional practical training extension, which permits them to work after they graduate from an American university, also remain unaffected for now. 

And individuals who can navigate the immigration system from within — such as students now transitioning to work visas — also aren’t impacted, according to Loweree. 

But there is a lack of clarity for those in this gray zone, such as Aditya Ghatpande, a law clerk in an Ohio company. Ghatpande, who came here as a law student three years ago, made it to the H-1B visa lottery this year and is waiting for his visa to get processed. 

He says that when the order dropped his first reaction was stress and anxiety, but later it was more of confusion. 

“The order doesn’t really say anything about those who are changing their status from OPT to H-1B,” Ghatpande says. “My personal impression from what I’ve read … is that it shouldn’t [affect us]. But I’ve a bit of a bias, since I would be affected by it, [I like to think] it doesn’t really include me in its scope.”

Helping American workers or hurting the economy? 

Proponents of the work visa restrictions argue that it will keep high-skilled foreign workers from taking jobs from an American labor force severely affected by unemployment — first-time U.S unemployment claims have now crossed the 47.3 million mark. An administration official told reporters that the visa suspension will open up 525,000 jobs for U.S. workers.

“Guest worker programs don’t exist to provide job opportunities to people. They exist to fill legitimate shortages in labor or to hire people with exceptional skills which can’t be replicated,” says Ira Mehlman, media director at the Federation For American American Immigration Reform, an organization that seeks to reduce overall immigration. 

According to Mehlman, because of the unemployment levels right now, there is no shortage of workers here for various jobs. “The thing businesses should be doing is hiring the millions and millions of Americans who are unemployed right now,” he said. 

However, this may not be the full picture. 

The unemployment rate for computer occupations, which have a large number of H-1B holders, declined from 3% to 2.8% between January and April 2020, according to an analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey by the National Foundation for American Policy. This was while other sectors saw their unemployment rate grow from 4.1% to 15%. 

Around 625,000 active job vacancy postings were advertised online for jobs in computer occupations in the 30-day period ending May 13, 2020, according to Emsi Job Posting Analytics

“It won’t have the effect they want,” Loweree said. “It will deepen the economic crisis. Most of those visas go to workers that cannot be replaced.” Some of the visas lost this year might be lost forever — there are specific conditions for the rollover of visas to the next year, Loweree explains. Legislation down the road might be the only solution for reinstating these visas. 

The April 22 order also included claims about job loss, arguing that there was no way to protect Americans from “the threat of competition for scarce jobs from new lawful permanent residents.” 

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Abubakr Meah, an immigration attorney who works with the Indo-American Center in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, says the real impact of the immigration suspension order is a loss of family support for local immigrant communities due to the ban on the nearly 480,000 family-based visas usually issued each year. 

“[These are] blue collar jobs, like the factory workers, essential workers that a lot of our constituents in the community have. The baker, who wakes up at three o’clock in the morning so that we can have bread during the COVID-19 crisis, who is exposed to customers left and right,” he said.  

“It’s traumatizing because these people cannot have anyone to support them. And they call their loved ones to come to support their families while they’re called in to duty, and instead of supporting them, right, we’re putting more of a hindrance.”  

Often, those coming to the U.S. on a family-based visa take up vital roles such as childcare and looking after household members. The American Immigration Council says family admissions are critical for the “‘care economy,’ which is fundamental for the well-being of household members, helps sustain the current and future workforce, and facilitates women’s labor force participation.”

Advocates sought but failed to obtain a temporary restraining order against the April 22 order, saying that it “threatens serious harm to immigrant family members whose chance to reunite after many long years of waiting has suddenly been curtailed.” 

Jesse Bless, director of litigation at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said that their litigation team was preparing to continue their challenge to the April ruling and is strongly considering a challenge to the latest order as well. 

But for now, immigrant communities can do nothing but wait anxiously for future directives from the administration.  

More immigration restrictions to come?  

Hardline immigration policies have been the norm since Trump came to power. Restrictive policy measures have been coupled with harsh rhetoric from Trump, who infamously said “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” in a closed-door immigration meeting about protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries in 2018.

Some policy experts believe that the Trump administration is using coronavirus as an excuse to push through deeply restrictive, if temporary, immigration measures by executive order that it couldn’t achieve through legislation. A bill rejected by the Senate in 2018 had substantially similar provisions to those mentioned in the suspension order — getting rid of the diversity visa lottery and family preference visas. Trump has a history of using executive action to circumvent congressional approval, a tactic his predecessor Barack Obama was also criticized for by the GOP. Since Trump was elected to office, several of the executive orders he’s issued were directly aimed at creating barriers to immigration to the U.S., including travel bans against seven Muslim-majority countries in 2017.

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Coronavirus-related border restrictions on Canada and Mexico in effect since March 21have been extended to July 21. The U.S has accelerated thousands of deportations to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. 

Other restrictive immigration measures may also be waiting in the wings. 

The Department of Homeland Security is considering a proposal that raises the standard of proof for asylum. Other H-1B restrictions might also be introduced soon. A proposal that imposes a minimum wage restriction for H-1Bs is being floated — a move that might eliminate a major proportion of foreign workers that are lower-earning. The order also has a provision allowing for the Secretary of Homeland Security to take action regarding “ensuring that the presence in the United States of H-1B nonimmigrants does not disadvantage United States workers.”

The OPT student worker program is also being hotly debated — four Republican senators wrote to Trump asking for a suspension of the popular program that lets international students stay and work after they graduate from American universities, while 21 House Republicans wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf in support of the program. 

Doug Rand, co-founder of immigrant advocacy group Boundless Immigration said that a “nightmare scenario” where there is “some kind of bolt-from-the-blue suspension of the program where everybody who’s applied is out of luck and everybody who’s on the program has to leave the country,” seems extremely unlikely. 

But in an uncertain and hostile environment for immigrants, this is the exact kind of situation that many individuals are worried about, irrespective of their visa or immigrant status. As coronavirus is expected to  linger on for a good while yet — by some accounts, until 2021 or even 2022 — it remains to be seen whether coronavirus-related measures will alter the face of American immigration beyond the end of the pandemic.