The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a livestream panel discussing the proclamation suspending entry of immigrants who present risk to the U.S. labor market during the economic recovery following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Center for Immigration Studies
Director of Policy Studies
Center for Immigration Studies
MARK KRIKORIAN: Hello. My name is Mark Krikorian. I am executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. And we wanted to talk about the reported executive order from the White House suspending nonimmigrant visas. We haven’t seen the proclamation yet, but it’s supposed to be signed momentarily. And there has been extensive reporting about what’s in it, and I think that’s – you know, it’s an important issue for us to sort of give some context for so people know what they’re going to be reading in the paper or online once the – once the actual release is posted, once the actual proclamation is posted.
Jessica Vaughan is here with me. Jessica, are you – are you in? Are you here? OK.
JESSICA M. VAUGHAN: I’m here.
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK. Well, the – obviously, the context is massive unemployment. In May, unemployment actually did go down a little bit from April, which is encouraging, but it’s still extremely high. I mean, multiples – the unemployment for natives and immigrants is much, much higher than it was before the virus shutdown happened. And so the question is, is it really advisable to be admitting large numbers of foreign workers into this kind of environment?
That’s what the administration responded to initially in April with a proclamation that limited a small portion of green-card holders – in other words, permanent immigrants What they’re supposed to be doing today, as has been reported in the media, is extending that proclamation but then adding things – provisions about what are called nonimmigrant visas. Nonimmigrants doesn’t mean people who are born here. Nonimmigrants means foreigners who come here but not on a green card, on some kind of temporary status. All the H-1Bs or tourists or foreign students, those are all considered nonimmigrants. And this proclamation – presidential proclamation, they call it – limits certain of those that relate to work.
Jessica, if you could tell us, first, a little bit about the green-card part that’s being extended. And the whole point is all of these changes are going to be running through the end of the year; presumably, they might or might not be extended then. So, Jessica, if you could briefly tell us about why the green-card extension is important, the suspension of the green-card categories, and then we can talk about the nonimmigrant work-visa categories that are reportedly going to be suspended. Jessica?
MS. VAUGHAN: Sure. Thanks.
The extension of the – of the suspension on certain green-card categories is important. It covers a lot of the chain-migration categories, including parents and the more extended family relatives. It covers people arriving on employment green cards from abroad. And it covers the visa lottery program, the diversity visa lottery. And all of those add up to about 25,000 new arrivals every month, so it’s – to have that extended is another 150,000 fewer people who are going to be arriving from abroad.
But the categories are also important because the chain-migration categories and the visa-lottery categories are categories of immigrants that are not coming because of their skills. So it’s a little bit complicated because of the way our legal system works. Some of those are going to be replaced by immigrants who are already here in jobs. But what this means is that the immediate flow of new green-card holders, new immigrants, is going to be a bit more weighted toward those with skills than it would have been otherwise, and it’s going to be people who are on average more self-sufficient.
So that’s a positive step for our immigration system, especially at this time of economic recovery, when we don’t want to be admitting as many people as we have in the past who are – who are potentially going to be, you know, working in the lower-skilled jobs, be admitting people with less education. So that’s a good thing that that’s going to go through the end of the year.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. Just to clarify your point here, the reason what you’re talking about is going to happen is because half or more of each year’s green-card recipients are people who already live here on some other kind of visa.
MS. VAUGHAN: Right.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And so even though the suspension of those green – of the green-card admissions from abroad isn’t designed to lead to that result, basically, almost by accident the result will be a somewhat more skilled – higher average skill level among the people who get green cards for the rest of the year.
MS. VAUGHAN: Right, that’s the affect of the suspension –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
MS. VAUGHAN: – because we can’t – I mean, the – our green cards are given out in certain numbers that are set by Congress each year, and the agencies try to work very hard to make sure that all – the number – the total number that are allowed are actually going to be awarded, if at all possible.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right, right. So, now, what about the work visas, the so-called nonimmigrant visas? The Washington Post is reporting that the freeze is going to apply to H-1B visas; H-4, which are the spouses/family of H-1Bs; and L visas; as well as most of the J and H-2B visas. So what would that – what’s that mean?
MS. VAUGHAN: Well, that means that it’s potentially about 400,000 visas that could be affected here. And those numbers come primarily from the H-1B category, which is one of our largest temporary-worker categories, and it’s going to cover about 90 percent of the seasonal unskilled jobs. The exchange-worker jobs will be about – probably it will affect about a little over half of those, and those are the summer work travel jobs and some of the internships and other employment-related jobs – camp counselors and so on – that will be affected. And also, this category called intracompany transferees, the Ls –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
MS. VAUGHAN: – and most of –
MR. KRIKORIAN: And what are – and what are Ls?
MS. VAUGHAN: In reality, most of those have been taking up – taken up by body-shop workers, you know, in the tech industry in recent years. So add all those up and that’s hundreds of thousands of visa workers who will not be arriving between now and the end of the year. And it affects both college grads and unskilled workers, and so that means – that’s going to help our recent grads who are American and legal immigrants, and also people who have been sidelined by the pandemic who might be able to step in and will now have a chance at some of these seasonal jobs that are now not going to be filled with foreign workers. So it’s significant for American workers and it’s something that – you know, this move is going to help our recovery in that way, by putting people back to work who otherwise would not have had the chance to get these jobs.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Now, we don’t know the specifics yet because we haven’t seen it, but the president had said earlier and the reporting now says, for instance, that most H-2Bs, for instance, will be suspended. We don’t know what percentage or which ones. But who uses H-2Bs? And you know, what kind of pressure was there to not suspend those visas?
MS. VAUGHAN: Well, about 40 percent of the H-2B workers are employed in the landscaping industry. A lot of the others are working in manufacturing or food processing or in hospitality, like hotels and resorts. And a lot of them work in amusement parks or some of the traveling carnival workers that come through our communities throughout the year. Those are the main categories for H-2Bs, sometimes also guards like lifeguards. You know, just the kind of thing that a high-school kid or someone home from college might – or somebody who’s been sidelined from their regular job because of the pandemic shutdown might be able to step in and do for the summer.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
MS. VAUGHAN: These are seasonal jobs, even though a lot of them actually are permanent jobs, but – and some of the workers, frankly, move from one seasonal job to another. But you know, that’s – you know, if the president does make the suspension broad enough to cover most of those categories, we’re talking about a lot of good seasonal jobs that would be open to Americans and legal-immigrant workers.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And likewise, the J visa. This is called a cultural exchange visa, and some of the people using it are in fact on cultural exchange, but there are lots of – it has separate programs within it, and a lot of those really are just work programs. We don’t know yet the full list of what would and would not be suspended within the J visas, but the reporting – I’m looking at the Post story – says most of them will be suspended. What are some of the big categories in J under this so-called cultural exchange? And are those jobs that Americans would be able to fill?
MS. VAUGHAN: Well, we do have a table that shows exactly what some of these categories are, and maybe we could put up – table number three shows those. And you can see that the largest category is the Summer Work Travel program, and it seems logical –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Oh, yeah, down at the bottom there. Right. Yes, I see.
MS. VAUGHAN: Right. That would – that’s more than 100,000 workers.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
MS. VAUGHAN: It seems logical that that’s one of the ones that is most likely to be suspended because these are – you know, we’ve now arrived at summer, and the consulates abroad are already shut down because of the pandemic, and travel is very difficult. So it seems likely that those would be suspended. The other summer jobs are camp counselors, and those are the big categories. A lot of these exchange-program participants are academic related –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Right.
MS. VAUGHAN: – and those probably wouldn’t start up until the fall anyway. So, you know, I think a suspension of these visas is almost certainly likely to cover the Summer Work Travel and camp counselor. You know, it’s possible they could look at the au pair program, which are – these are childcare workers. It’s become controversial because of the pay rates in that program and the – and the fact that they don’t make minimum wage. But yeah, this is significant.
And frankly, a lot of these exchange workers overstay their visas, we found out through Department of Homeland Security statistics. So this is a significant move in a lot of ways if that’s what the president decides to do, and the signs are likely that that’s what he would focus on.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And we are – you know, the concern a lot of people have had – worker advocates have had – is that when this proclamation comes out, that it’ll be riddled with exceptions; that, you know, it will be more cosmetic than not. And the reporting all suggests this is going to be substantial and this is actually going to genuinely suspend programs with relatively few exceptions. Do you have any thoughts on the pressure that the – either the pressure the White House was under or the conflict – maybe more accurately, the conflict within the White House about how much – how friendly or subservient to corporate interests the administration should be in this regard?
MS. VAUGHAN: Well, you know, every action that the president has contemplated has been the subject of a real tug of war between a couple of different factions that exist among the president’s advisors. There are folks who are interested in making sure that there is a pipeline of workers that is asked for by the employer groups or the donor-class employers that have come to be dependent on visa workers. They find it easier to let labor recruiters go overseas to find workers than, you know, trying to cast down their bucket where they are here. And there are others within the administration that are – recognize the abuses that occur in these programs, and the fact that American workers are affected by abuse of these programs, and that these – you know, that there are Americans who need these jobs and want these jobs. And so that’s always the tug of war that occurs, you know, between the business interests and folks who are looking to provide relief to American workers.
And I have myself observed a pretty heated campaign on the part of the employers to, you know, actually say with a straight face that even now, with 40 million Americans, you know, who have filed for unemployment potentially, you know, and our own research showing high unemployment numbers among both Americans and legal immigrants, that we need these workers now more than ever to help our economic recovery. And it just isn’t credible at this point. You know, people understand that that just doesn’t make any sense; that – you know, that there have always been problems in these visa programs all along, but it makes even less sense to keep this pipeline coming to displace Americans when so many – you know, when the low unemployment rates that we saw in the last few years have vanished with the pandemic shutdown. And again, it’s not just workers who don’t have a college degree that are affected. It’s also knowledge workers who – you know, who need access to these jobs as well.
So, you know, this is going to be the president making good on a campaign promise to push a hire-American agenda. And so, you know, that’s – you know, some people have been trying to subvert that agenda from within, didn’t think it was important, don’t, you know – you know, think that the president should back away from it or just do only limited things about it. But you know, given what’s happened to our labor market and what’s happened to the economy, this will make a big difference for our recovery. It’s going to help it along and it’s going to give the opportunity to evaluate our visa programs in a new light – to make sure that they’re not obsolete, that they’re still working for our country’s interests, and that they’re not adversely affecting American workers.
MR. KRIKORIAN: To put some concrete numbers on this, the Examiner – the Washington Examiner is reporting that it could prevent up to 525,000 immigrants from entering the country. What are your guesses on – depending on what’s included and what’s excluded, what could the numerical effect of this be?
MS. VAUGHAN: Yes, I think that’s easily possible. If we could put up table one, which shows all of the nonimmigrant worker categories that were admitted in recent years, you can see that the categories of visas that reportedly are going to be covered under this extension of the executive action are – you know, one of the biggest categories is H-1B. In 2019, there were almost 190,000 new visas given in that category. And J is another big category, over 200,000. L is almost 77,000 workers. H-2B is 90-some thousand. So these are significant numbers. It’s not all the categories that we think should be under consideration, but if this executive order turns out the way that the reporting is going, you know, you can see that it would cover probably more than half of all annual nonimmigrant worker admissions.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And there’s also been reporting – the Post reported that there are going to be some regulatory changes – in other words, separate from this proclamation – that will deal with, for instance, H-1Bs, the rules for H-1Bs. And we recently put out kind of a checklist of recommendations, both for these temporary – sort of for the short-term suspension of some visas, as well as some longer-term regulatory changes. Could you touch on a few of the things that we had recommended in the H-1B area, which – they may or may not all be in the final regulations, but it kind of gives a sense of the kinds of changes that H-1B needs to see?
MS. VAUGHAN: Well, there’s a lot of room for improvement, and we need regulations on some – new regulations on some of these programs to curb the abuses and to cut down on the fraud and so on. And –
MR. KRIKORIAN: And, Jessica, if I could just interrupt you briefly, it’s important people understand a proclamation or an executive order is much easier to reverse because you just issue it. A regulation has to go through a certain number of hoops. And so it’s – it can be undone, but it’s harder to undo, so it’s a more lasting change.
MS. VAUGHAN: Right, because Congress, after all, sets the numbers –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, right.
MS. VAUGHAN: – and the general criteria for who the program is designed to bring in. And this would – you know, ideally, regulations would cover not only the visa programs themselves, but also the work-permit discretionary issuances that operate as kind of a shadow work program. We’ve compiled a table showing these numbers, and you know, it’s the – a second table in our recent report “Hire American” shows the types of work permits that we currently give out that are in addition to the nonimmigrant visa programs. And what we have found is that the number of work permits that are issued far surpasses the number of new work visas. It’s almost 2 million a year work permits that are given out.
But ideally, for new regulations what we recommended in our recent publication “Hire American” is that the president look at the H-1B and L programs to try to make sure that the workers who are being brought in on these visas are actually not undercutting the wages of Americans; that we try to make sure that they are not being brought in as entry level and trainees primarily, as is the case with most of them, that they actually are uniquely talented and therefore highly-paid workers. We think a good proxy for determining how highly skilled a worker is is how much they are paid and how much an employer is willing to pay to bring them into the country. And so our system for selecting these workers ought to be prioritizing those workers, the most highly paid and highly skilled, rather than just the ones who get their applications in first or who ask for the highest number of workers. So hopefully, there will be some regulation along those lines.
There are other large categories of people who get work permits, for example asylum seekers. We issue more than 400,000 work permits a year to people who are asking for safe haven, for asylum, and often gaming our asylum system. That’s one of the big motivating factors for somebody to come into the country illegally and ask for asylum, is because they know that they’re at a certain point allowed to apply for a work permit. That’s a lot of jobs. And so we need to take a look and see if that’s working, especially when a lot of these people never even show up for their hearings.
So there are many different categories. Another work-permit category that a lot of people have not focused on is one that allows the family members of people who are admitted on work visas to also get a work permit. So if someone is brought in by a company on an H-1B or an L or a J visa, their spouse and sometimes their children, if they have them, of working age are issued work permits. And the president has the authority to suspend this program in certain cases if he wants to, especially the spouses and dependents of the – in the H-1B category, which is something that was started under President Obama by regulation. That, you know, is something that Trump could look at curtailing, and it’s tens of thousands of work permits, and it’s a benefit that encourages people who arrive as temporary workers to stay here trying to become permanent.
So, you know, this is not the type of program that you ought to be running in a labor market like we have, with tens of millions of Americans and legal immigrants out of work. It just should be low priority and suspended if at all possible. There’s been a regulation in the works for about a year to suspend this – the work permits for families of guest workers, but it was never a big priority apparently. And it’s time to make it one.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And just to clarify for people who’ve joined us, any of those regulatory changes would likely not be in this proclamation that’s coming up because that requires a different set of hoops to jump through when you do regulation. The proclamation – I just want to wrap up here, but what’s been reported is that it’s going to be suspending the admission – not people who are here already, but people who are coming in – of people on H-1B visas, L visas, most of the H-2B and the J visas likewise. And so my sense is – and I’m happy to, you know, be – if you want to disagree, feel free. But it seems to me this is pretty significant. This is much better, frankly, than I was expecting. I was thinking that the lobbyists for the various cheap-labor industries would have been much more successful. But if the reports are correct, they seem to have been defeated – they were rebuffed, I mean, at least generally speaking – and that this, while it doesn’t check all of the boxes on our – the checklist that we had put together before, it is – this is pretty significant. This seems to me a win for American workers. Do you disagree or agree, Jessica?
MS. VAUGHAN: No, I agree completely. This is the kind of bold action that is really needed at this point in time and is really noteworthy that this has become a big priority for the president. And you know, it sort of looks like a lot of the energy that was put into, you know, lobbying on behalf of a flow of cheap labor would have been better put toward recruiting of the available American workers.
You know, we don’t – we don’t know exactly what’s going to be in it, but I haven’t heard anyone or seen any reports that this is going to cover the OPT program, which is a work-permit program for college grads. And I haven’t seen anybody say that they’re going to look at new criteria for the labor certifications for employment green cards or even for future guest workers. And obviously, it seems unlikely that they’re going to limit the number of farmworkers who come in. But on balance, this is really quite significant.
The time period is very important because it means that – you know, going through the end of the year means that –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Just to clarify, it goes through the end of the year.
MS. VAUGHAN: – that employers aren’t going to be able to just hold their breath until it’s over, that they actually have to change their business model. And that’s good for – good for all of us.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And conceivably, I mean, it could be renewed at the end of the year, presumably. So we’ll – you know, we’ll see what happens there.
But the – let’s wrap this up. I appreciate it, Jessica. Hopefully, our comments here will be borne out by the actual text, which was supposed to have been out by now but apparently still isn’t out. But it does seem that the administration has really responded to these concerns about American workers and stepped – and at least to a significant degree pushed aside the corporate lobbying – corporate lobbyists who were trying to neuter or adulterate this proclamation.
So maybe we will do another one of these when we have some more details, or maybe on some of these other elements. There are reportedly going to be regulations on H-1B and what have you, which may not be released at the same time.
But in the meantime, thank you, Jessica. And we will hopefully see all of you again next time we do one of these. Thank you very much.
MS. VAUGHAN: Thank you.