Sep 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The plunge in highly skilled work visas

Data: U.S. State Department via Migration Policy Institute: Note: Including E1, E2, H-1B, H-4, L-1, L-2, O-1, O-2, O-3, TN and TD visas; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Coronavirus has slammed the door on highly skilled foreign workers — amping up President Trump's push to limit American-based companies' hiring of foreigners.

Why it matters: The restrictions and bottlenecks may outlast the pandemic, especially if Trump wins reelection. Economists warn that could slow the U.S. recovery and reduce competitiveness.

  • But critics of high-skilled worker programs say even more should be done to protect U.S. workers.

Temporary visas for those with "extraordinary" ability (O visas), specialty job skills (H-1B, H-4, L visas), or who are trade professionals or investors (E, TN, TD visas) fell from 61,000 in January to less than 500 in April as the pandemic set in and consulates closed, according to an analysis by Migration Policy Institute.

  • Trump then banned entry for most foreign workers outside the U.S., with proclamations in late April and June.
  • Under other Trump policies, denial rates for the popular high-skilled H-1B visas tripled compared to the end of the Obama administration at 29%, the National Foundation for American Policy found.
  • Temporary, high-skilled visas rose from April to around 2,200 in July — still a far cry from the nearly 61,000 issued last July.

What to watch: Last month the State Department announced broad exemptions to Trump's proclamation, which could allow employers to bring in more foreign workers.

  • Restrictions could force companies to move jobs offshore, TechCrunch reports.
  • Others businesses may simply wait longer or decide not to hire if they can't easily get the foreign talent they need.
  • "Most people view immigration as a zero-sum game. An immigrant comes in and an American loses, and that's not at all the way that economists view that issue," said Chad Sparber, an economics professor at Colgate University.

What they’re saying: "It's not so much just bringing the talent into the country," Jon Baselice, U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director of immigration policy, told Axios. "It's having the talent come here to help start new operations."

The big picture: Between January and May, total temporary and permanent visas issued by the State Department, including for travelers and family members, fell 90%.

  • And officials predict significant drops in overall travel and immigrant visa applications for the next two years compared with 2018, per ProPublica's reporting.
  • "They have literally shut down legal immigration to United States," renowned immigration attorney Charles Kuck told Axios.
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