The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Closing America’s gates

Politics | Pandemic and economic forces bring immigration nearly to a halt
by Harvest Prude
Posted 7/02/20, 04:54 pm

WASHINGTON—The name Elon Musk brings to mind the rocket ships and luxury electric cars his businesses developed. But fewer people know the entrepreneur behind the companies SpaceX and Tesla is an immigrant twice over and now a citizen of three countries: South Africa, Canada, and, most recently, the United States. He moved to California’s Silicon Valley at the age of 20 and founded his first company.

During the 2008 recession, Musk poured his personal wealth into Tesla to keep the struggling company afloat. On Wednesday, Tesla shares rose 4 percent to a record high, surpassing Toyota as the most valuable automobile company on the planet.

From 2008 to 2011, immigrants from Canada, China, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere founded or co-founded companies such as Venmo, WhatsApp, Instagram, Uber, and Zoom. These companies are now ubiquitous features of American society and have created thousands of jobs.

Last month, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation expanding a ban on the immigration of most categories of foreign workers through the end of the year. With the United States in the middle of an economic downturn and 31.5 million Americans unemployed in June, Trump said the freeze would help “unemployed Americans be first in line for jobs as America opens.” But some technology companies and other business leaders are concerned the restrictions will constrain the country’s economic recovery.

“Putting up a ‘Not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses, and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said. 

The proclamation follows several policy changes by the Trump administration that have gradually closed the door to most categories of legal immigrants. U.S. citizens can still sponsor spouses, children, and international adoptees. Afghanis or Iraqis who assist the military may be able to get special immigrant visas, and investors may be able to get in on EB-5 visas. International students are not explicitly banned, but many cannot travel here because of restrictions related to the coronavirus. 

“It’s basically the most shut down it’s been in U.S. history,” said David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “There’s basically no immigration happening. It’s totally unprecedented.”

Trump’s most recent proclamation targets about 525,000 jobs that immigrants might have filled. It does not apply to foreign workers already in the United States. Its ban on new H-1B visas for highly skilled workers will primarily affect the technology sector. It also halts the issuance of H-4 visas for their spouses and children, H-2B visas for seasonal workers, and L visas that companies use to transfer their overseas employees into the United States.

Visa processing for tourists and other short-term visitors has ground to a near standstill because U.S. consulates overseas are closed due to the pandemic. The number of nonimmigrant visas issued has dropped by more than 90 percent since February, according to the State Department, and the asylum system is “by and large just shut off at this point,” said Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum.

The freeze excludes agricultural workers but may still affect the food supply chain because dairy farms and ranchers rely on H-2B visa workers that are not considered “agricultural.” The ban also offers certain exceptions for workers deemed “in the national interest,” including healthcare professionals who assist in the response to COVID-19, food service employees, and au pairs, but the details are vague.

Several immigration experts questioned the administration’s justification for the ban. “In the tech sector, most all these jobs, they haven’t disappeared,” Noorani said. The National Foundation for American Policy noted that throughout May and June, companies advertised more than 639,000 job vacancies for computer occupations, including those that H-1B visa holders could fill.

Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, noted some categories targeted by the ban, such as the spouses and children of H-1B visa holders, do not pose any competition to U.S. citizens. “There doesn’t seem to be a strong economic argument for keeping children out,” he said. “It’s not even true that all spouses in these categories would be eligible to work. Only those with a pending green card.”

Kevin Hernandez, policy director at the Libre Initiative, said the order assumes the country has a fixed number of jobs, but “the labor market, like the economy, is dynamic. … The more people we have contributing will increase labor, productivity, and demand, which increases prosperity and economic activity.”

He added that shutting out additional workers may hurt the chances for innovation and expansion: “How many Elon Musks or others are we going to be turning away that ultimately create American jobs?”

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.

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