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Citing pandemic, President Trump orders limits on foreign workers, extends immigration restrictions through December

President Donald Trump, shown at a 2019 meeting, moved to limit visas many companies use to hire specially skilled workers.      REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump, shown at a 2019 meeting, moved to limit visas many companies use to hire specially skilled workers. REUTERS/Leah Millis

President Trump issued an executive order Monday barring many categories of foreign workers and curbing immigration visas through the end of the year, moves the administration characterized as necessary to protect U.S. workers following steep job losses amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to senior administration officials.

The freeze will apply to work visas that many companies use, especially in the technology sector, landscaping services and the forestry industry. It excludes agricultural laborers and some health care workers and includes a special exemption for the approximately 20,000 child-care providers who come to the United States as “au pairs.”

Trump officials described the measures in a call with reporters on Monday, but the White House would not allow the officials to be quoted by name. The new restrictions, which Trump is expected to sign Monday afternoon, will prevent foreign workers from filling 525,000 jobs, according to White House estimates.

Critics of the moves say the president is using the pandemic to carry out the kind of border closures and immigration overhaul he has long extolled, allowing him to tout the measures on the campaign trail.

The freeze will apply to H1-B, H4, and L visas, as well as most J and H2-B visas, the officials said. The administration also said it would issue new regulations denying work authorization to asylum seekers with pending claims for one year, arguing that the humanitarian program is being exploited by economic migrants who file meritless claims.

Trump on April 22 ordered a 60-day freeze on several categories of family and employment-based immigration visas, limits that have now been extended through the end of 2020. While U.S. citizens can continue to sponsor spouses and minor children, Trump’s orders will bar most other categories of applicants, affecting more than half of the approximately 460,000 immigration visas issued last year.

Trump’s orders, which the White House has described as “a pause,” do not apply to immigrants already living and working in the United States nor to permanent residents seeking to become naturalized citizens.

As part of the April 22 decree, Trump directed federal agencies to study the possible impact of additional restrictions on work visas. The new measures will apply to several categories of “J” or “cultural exchange” visas, including foreign camp counselors, summer schoolteachers and other short term workers, though not au pairs nor university professors, Trump officials said.

Major businesses for weeks had urged the Trump administration against adopting severe restrictions on foreign workers, fearing lasting impacts on the labor force at a time when many companies are struggling financially amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In May, the U.S. Chamber and a raft of industry groups warned the White House it would be “misguided” to expand its earlier ban on immigrants. The group sounded off again in June, writing in a letter to Trump that a ban on many categories of non-immigrant workers could undermine the economic recovery effort that the president sought to stimulate in the first place.

“As the economy rebounds, American businesses will need assurances that they can meet all their workforce needs,” the Chamber said in its letter. “To that end, it is crucial that they have access to talent both domestically and from around the world.”

Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google similarly have asked the White House to rethink its restrictions. The Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington D.C.-based trade group that represents the four tech giants, emphasized their industry relies heavily on high-skilled laborers and students obtaining technical degrees from abroad.

“The technology industry, including our foreign-born workers, is vital to sustaining these recovery trends,” ITI wrote. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Trump administration officials have defended the restrictions as a sensible measure to protect U.S. workers amid unemployment levels that are the highest since the Great Depression.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll published last month found 65% of Americans support a temporary halt on nearly all immigration during the pandemic, with 34% opposed. Republicans and independents support such restrictions by a wide margin, the poll found, while Democrats were split.

Mark Krikorian, whose Center for Immigration Studies has urged the Trump administration for years to adopt such restrictions, called Trump’s order “a significant victory over corporate interests.”

Krikorian and other restrictionists in the GOP have long argued that guest worker programs displace U.S. workers and drive down their wages. They have been battling pro-business Republicans for control of the party’s immigration platform.

“This is a victory for the immigration hawks within the White House,” Krikorian said. “Maybe it took the pandemic to help them overcome the pressure from lobbyists to keep the cheap labor coming.”

State Department visa statistics show the number of nonimmigrant visas issued each month already has dropped more than 90% since February. Last month, the United States granted just more than 40,000 nonimmigrant visas — which include tourists and other short-term visitors — down from 670,000 in January.

Disclosure: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.