Sep 12, 2020

Axios Deep Dives

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

Good afternoon and welcome to a Deep Dive, led by Axios demographics reporter Stef Kight, on employment-based immigration trends — and how they're being shaped by coronavirus and the Trump administration.

  • Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,155 words, a 4-minute read.
1 big thing: The plunge in highly skilled foreign workers

Illustration: Aïda Amer/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.

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."

Go deeper.

2. 2020's foreign worker slump
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
3. American jobs stolen

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Last month Trump fired two Tennessee Valley Authority board members after the federally owned energy corporation replaced employees with foreign workers.

  • It was the latest example of big corporations — including AT&T, Disney and Southern California Edison — using H-1B visas for cheaper labor, and sometimes forcing Americans to first train their foreign replacements.

Conservative immigration advocates say Trump has done too little to prevent this kind of abuse, despite explicit campaign promises in 2016. Record U.S. unemployment has exacerbated the concern.

  • "He hasn’t really taken any steps to make any of the real fixes" to the H-1B program, Economic Policy Institute's Daniel Costa said. "A lot of it has been somewhat symbolic."

Conversations with workers and attorneys paint a picture of a fine-tuned process. U.S. workers are often assured their job will not change when they are "rebadged" to work for a contractor.

4. Big Tech fighting for more high-skilled visas
Data: National Foundation for American Policy and USCIS; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The tech industry has been an influential advocate for the popular H-1B guest worker program in the face of Trump-era restrictions, Axios' Ashley Gold writes.

The big picture: Visa denial rates for tech companies have spiked during Trump's first term amid various small regulatory changes, according to government data compiled by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

By the numbers: 85,000 new H-1B visas are allowed each year, plus additional cap-exempt visas. Tech companies have long pushed to increase that number.

  • In fiscal year 2019, employers submitted 190,098 new H-1B applications. There are already more than half a million H-1B workers in the U.S.
  • But denial rates rose to 29% through the second quarter of fiscal year 2020 from 6% in fiscal year 2015, according to NFAP.

The Trump administration is pushing new restrictions, moving to change the definition of "specialty occupation" for H-1Bs.

  • On Sept. 4, a long-anticipated proposed rule was sent to the Office of Management and Budget to "better protect U.S. workers and wages."

What they're saying: "Highly skilled visa holders play a critical role in driving innovation," a Facebook spokesperson told Axios, "and that’s something we should encourage, not restrict."

  • "[W]e need that talent to help contribute to America’s economic recovery," Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda said.

The other side: Opponents of boosting the visa program question the reality of high tech labor shortages and often point to stagnant wages in computer occupations.

5. College international student enrollments plummet

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Colleges and universities are expecting the lowest foreign enrollment since World War II due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions and the Trump administration, Axios' Marisa Fernandez writes.

Driving the news: U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is preventing new international students from coming into the country if all of their courses are online.

  • The State Department barred travelers coming directly from China, America's largest source of foreign students followed by India.
  • Trump's rhetoric and policies have already discouraged international students, said Ming Hsu Chen, a law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Why it matters: Foreign students are a vital source of revenue for U.S. universities, which already are suffering other revenue losses because of the pandemic.

  • Foreign students are also an important pipeline for U.S. high-skilled labor.

By the numbers: The American Council on Education estimated a 25% decline in international enrollment this fall and a $25 billion revenue loss for education institutions.

  • The decline in foreign enrollment in recent years has cost the U.S. economy an estimated $11.8 billion and more than 65,000 jobs that would have been supported by student spending, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
6. Foreign students could face new roadblocks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration plans to propose a rule in coming weeks to make international students request visa extensions after two or four years of study, administration officials tell Axios.

  • Right now, foreign students can stay indefinitely as long as they meet requirements proving they are students.
  • The proposal would essentially set up mandatory check-ins with the Department of Homeland Security in an attempt to prevent overstays.
  • While ICE oversees the student visa program, the proposed extension process would go through the backlogged U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

What they're saying: NAFSA President Ravi Shankar told Axios a regulation of that kind would likely restrict international enrollment. Educators are concerned about an increase in already heavy workloads for universities and additional fees, as well as what happens if USCIS can't process extensions on time.

7. 1 million waiting for employment green cards
Data: Department of Homeland Security; Chart: Axios Visuals

Around 1.2 million people are waiting in line for employment-based green cards — including workers, their spouses and kids, according to an analysis by Migration Policy Institute's Julia Gelatt.

  • Caps on the number of green cards that can be given to any one country mean 68% of the backlog are people from India and 14% are from China.
8. Winning, then losing, the lottery

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

For over a decade, Fatma had applied for a shot at a green card through the diversity visa lottery — a program intended to bring in immigrants from underrepresented countries. Last year she became one of the lucky few selected out of millions.

  • Now, the 29-year-old Albanian with a master's degree, and experience in hospital administration, is fighting a pandemic and the Trump administration for her chance to move her family to the U.S.
  • Coronavirus canceled her visa interview scheduled for May. Then Trump's immigration bans threatened to keep her from receiving the visa at all.

"If you think of winning the lottery and then the next day somebody tells you that no, you can't go to collect," that is what it was like, her attorney told Axios.

What to watch: Last week a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to resume issuing diversity visas before the Sept. 30 deadline.

  • Fatma's attorney said she has an interview next week. But even if she gets the visa, as long as Trump's proclamation is in effect, the State Department won't let her in.
Mike Allen

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