Visas for Pottersville

In the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey is shown an alternate, dystopian version of Bedford Falls. In Pottersville, renamed for the greedy local mogul, the neighborhood bar is instead a raucous saloon, George’s flirty childhood friend has become a prostitute, and his real-world wife, Mary, is instead a spinster librarian.

At one point in Bedford Falls, George and Mary confess their love while on a phone call with a wealthy school friend. In the course of the call, Sam Wainwright announces plans to build a plastics factory in Rochester. George answers:

Why not right here? You remember that old tool and machinery works? You tell your father he can get that for a song. And all the labor he wants, too. Half the town was thrown out of work when they closed down.

If there had been a Pottersville version of that call, Sam, instead of hiring those jobless locals, would have responded, “Hire Americans? Nah, I’ll just import foreign workers on visas. Hee haw!”

Welcome to Pottersville.

Bad Policy Meets Harsh Reality

With 10 million unemployment claims just in the past two weeks and a jobless rate that could reach 32 percent, the Trump Administration is continuing the trend of increasing importation of foreign workers, whose numbers have doubled over the past decade.

The State Department has waived the interview requirement for H-2A visa farmworkers to speed their arrival, while the Department of Homeland Security is going ahead with a lottery for H-1B cheap-labor visas for tech firms and possibly increasing the number of H-2B nonfarm seasonal workers (for landscaping, hotels, carnivals, etc.)

This last is perhaps the most unreal. Following its recent practice, Congress responded to pressure from industry lobbyists to increase the number of H-2B visas by passing the buck to DHS, authorizing—but not requiring—it to increase the number. The administration decided on the largest-ever increase—35,000 additional visas—in the long-ago days of 3 percent unemployment (i.e., March 5).

Rather than retract that increase under today’s radically changed circumstances, DHS last week formally submitted the order for the increase to the White House and was expected to start doling out the visas this week.

But a blistering monologue by Tucker Carlson on Wednesday seems to have given the administration pause. DHS tweeted Thursday that “DHS’s rule on the H-2B cap is on hold pending review due to present economic circumstances. No additional H-2B visas will be released until further notice.” The increase should never have been submitted and should simply be canceled—the only “review” that’s needed is a review of the news headlines—but this is better than nothing.

Whatever happens with this temporarily suspended increase, the very existence of the visa program is contrary to the interests of American workers. Employers who use the H-2B visa—like those who use other low-skill visas or hire illegals—complain that they try to hire locally but that few Americans want the jobs and those who do show up aren’t good workers. Donald Trump himself, when he was running for the nomination, defended his own properties’ use of the H-2B visa by saying that Americans didn’t want the seasonal jobs he had available.

Before the current economic meltdown, employer complaints about worker quality were not entirely without merit. It’s not that foreign workers are generally better than Americans. But when unemployment was at 3 percent, visa workers (and illegals) might well have been better workers than the Americans who didn’t already have jobs. At that time, such American workers could include ex-cons, recovering addicts, clueless teenagers, and people with disabilities who call for more oversight and accommodation. Even under those conditions, there was no excuse for these low-skill visas, since without them employers would have no choice but to get creative in order to draw such harder-to-employ Americans into the world of work—a tight labor market is the best social policy.

But those conditions—when former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was telling people that the U.S. was “desperate” for more foreign workers—no longer exist. With millions suddenly out of work, there’s no excuse for the admission of any foreign visa workers.

And, unlike the numbers in other visa programs that are mandated by statute, the H-2B increase is entirely discretionary. The administration (and this decision was made at the White House, not by some low-level bureaucrat) could simply have told Congress that it would not exercise the option of increasing the cap. Authorizing that increase was one of the swampiest moves the White House could have made, one put on hold only belatedly and grudgingly.

Still Too Many

Even the guestworker programs where DHS does not have discretion should be halted given our new realities.

Even if the above-mentioned increase is actually canceled, the H-2B program is still set to import its base level of 66,000 foreign workers this year. The State Department announcement last week that it was speeding the admission of foreign farm workers claimed they are “a national security priority.” Employers submitted 275,000 applications for the 85,000 H-1B visas for “skilled” workers (many in tech), which will be doled out starting in October. And the Optional Practical Training program, a scheme that gives work visas to foreign graduates of U.S. universities masquerading as students, continues to fill hundreds of thousands of white-collar jobs with foreigners despite the fact that it has no basis in law.

The president has the authority to stop the admission of all foreign workers, recently upheld by the Supreme Court in last year’s “travel ban” case. Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act is quite clear:

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

“Detrimental to the interests of the United States” is practically the motto of our foreign-worker programs even in the best of times, but in today’s conditions, it’s an understatement.

Cheap-labor lobbyists undoubtedly would sue to enjoin any order by the president halting the admission of foreign workers. The administration should welcome such lawsuits; it would be hard to imagine a less sympathetic plaintiff than a company demanding that a judge order the admission of foreign workers in the current economic climate. Even losing such a case would be a political victory for the president and sane public opinion on these questions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste Wuhan virus proposal included, amid all the other nonsense, automatic renewal for all foreigners with work permits. It didn’t end up in the final bill, but at least you could make a case for narrowly tailored measures freezing everything in place until the crisis passes. In fact, I expect USCIS will administratively extend all expiring work-permit deadlines.

But the corollary of such a freeze would be a freeze on the admission of new foreign workers. Unfortunately, even under today’s emergency conditions our borders seem to operate as a ratchet for foreign workers—none of those already here have to leave and those whom employers want to import get to come in.

What does that make jobless American workers? Mr. Potter put it best: “Suckers.”

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