COVID & Election Concerns Allow Trump to Limit Foreign Workers

Taking cover behind the pandemic, US President Donald Trump has temporarily banned foreign workers and extended his curb on issuance of green cards. The executive order has drawn sharp criticism from industry leaders and Silicon Valley titans but it was hailed by a slew of anti-immigration activists who see Trump as their saviour.

The visa categories targeted are H-1B, H-4 (spouses), H-2B for low-skilled workers, J-1 visas for cultural and educational experts and L-1 for intra-company transfers. These visas will not be issued until the end of 2020. Those already in the US are not affected.

The order, which extends a 60-day freeze already in force since April 22, has an intimidating title: “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the US Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak.” Officials claim that the order would free up 525,000 jobs for American workers before the end of the year but that’s hardly impressive against 30 million – the number of Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits since the virus hit.

Also Read: Pichai, Silicon Valley React Strongly Against Trump's Visa Order

It’s All About Politics & Democrats Stand No Chance Here

Still, there’s no denying that the politics works for Trump. He is in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, the economy has gone south because of the pandemic and his poll numbers are not looking good. By restricting entry of a few thousand foreigners, he pleases his “base” and the labour unions. He is essentially saying he wants to give priority to the unemployed.

It’s tough for the Democrats to counter the argument because given the economic downturn, they can’t really say: let foreign workers in.

Many Democrats represent districts with high unemployment and have difficult re-election battles. Trump has already painted them as a party of “open borders” and illegal immigration.

The Democrats are caught between immigrant advocates and large corporations on the one hand and the average Joe and Jane voter who form the bulk of voters on the other. Recent polls show that more than 65% Americans favour pushing the pause button on immigration because of the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, responded to Trump’s proclamation by saying it was a distraction created to hide the administration’s failure to fight Covid-19. He talked in general terms about immigration being good for the US but didn’t strongly defend it.

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Do Indians Have Democrats to Blame?

The Democrats are between a rock and a hard place. If Biden bows to Silicon Valley CEOs who are his big donors but who denounced Trump’s executive order, he hands the president an easy win. If he backs Trump, well, he has a whole different kind of problem. If Biden takes the middle path, he looks ineffectual. In addition, Trump’s order also complicates the Democrats’ relations with the Indian American community. Community leaders want a resolution of the green card problem – 300,000 Indians are in line and it could be 50 years before they get their green cards.

The problem needs a fix but the US Congress seems paralysed.

Many Indian immigration activists blame Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, for blocking a bill that could address the problem albeit while creating new ones with other immigrant communities.

But how does Trump’s order affect Indian IT professionals because it is clearly directed against them—they are the main beneficiaries of H-1B visa programme for highly skilled workers. Indians get the bulk of the 85,000 such visas given every year and also populate the green card line in huge numbers.

Even though it’s large US companies such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft who take the bulk of H-1B visas, it’s the Indian tech majors such as Wipro, Infosys and TCS that get the bad name.

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Protest All You Want, Trump Has Always Been Tough on Immigration

That said, it’s easy to see why any and every development involving the letter “H” and the number “1” impacts thousands of Indian lives. And creates ripples of uncertainty for aspirants. Twitter exploded with comments from advocates, opponents, lawyers and politicians as soon as Trump’s order came.

Indian-born tech executives such as Sundar Pichai, who heads Alphabet, the parent company of Google, said he was “disappointed” by Trump’s move. Tim Cook, the Apple chief, reminded the White House that the US was a “nation of immigrants” who found hope and promise in the American dream.

Major US businesses had lobbied the White House for weeks not to go down this route at a time when companies are struggling because of the pandemic. But in the end those who say foreign workers steal American jobs and drive down wages won the battle and now control Trump’s immigration policy. They have a strong ally in Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser in the White House.

But nothing about Trump’s move should be surprising – he had promised in his presidential campaign he would be “tough” on immigration, that he would build walls, and “protect” American jobs. Within months of taking office, he had issued the “Buy American, Hire American,” executive order in April 2017. The H-1B visa holders have been at the receiving end since, facing higher visa rejections, more questions, more background checks and increasing costs.

Will Trump End Up Harming US Economy in the Long Run?

But it’s worth emphasizing that the current order will impact only the new wave of H-1B applications who would have been in the Oct.1 cycle when visas are allotted. Therefore the order will last two months – from October to December 2020. Besides, Indian tech companies have already adjusted their business models and some have increased local hires to as much as 70% to reduce dependence on H-1B visas.

Changes forced by the pandemic – remote working for example – are the new normal even if IT work often requires experts to be on site with their clients. In the end, Trump’s order may end up hurting the US economy more than actually helping it grow because US companies may move more jobs overseas. He may end up making the job situation worse.

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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