Moratorium Interruptus

President Trump tweeted last week that he was going to temporarily halt immigration, but the actual order (technically a presidential proclamation) was something of a dud.

It did put down, in official black and white, that too much immigration is bad for American workers. Given that we’re reenacting the Great Depression, it’s not like this should be controversial.

But it is—at least among the swamp lobbyists who mobilized after the president’s tweet and made sure the final product didn’t cramp the style of corporate users of cheap foreign labor. As a result, the supposedly worker-focused order from the White House didn’t do much of anything about the visa programs that import new foreign workers.

All is not lost, though! The president’s proclamation did say he was instructing the relevant departments to present recommendations to him in 30 days regarding those foreign-worker programs for a possible follow-up order (which he hinted at in a press briefing).

Here are some measures that should be included in those recommendations.

Suspend the H-1B Program

The H-1B visa is supposed to be for the temporary admission of skilled workers. Due to the Orwellian nature of our immigration system, these workers are neither especially skilled, nor really temporary.

Each year the program admits 85,000 people, mostly from India, to do routine computer work; in addition, universities can import an unlimited number. Because the visa can be indefinitely renewed, there are well over half a million H-1Bs here at any given time and at this point probably closer to a million, though the government won’t say how many.

There are two reasons employers find the program attractive: first, H-1Bs are cheap. Second, they are “loyal”—which is to say they are effectively indentured to their employers. This is because, while they are technically permitted to change employers, they almost never do because they want to be sponsored for a green card by that employer and, if they changed jobs, they’d have to start over on the years-long green card process.

Despite tendentious claims by tech lobbyists, the H-1B program is intentionally used to replace employed Americans. The most notorious instance of this was at Disney, which fired its American IT staff and forced them to train their (not-especially-competent) H-1B replacements as a condition of receiving severance payments. But this is not an isolated event: hundreds of companies have done this, and it’s entirely legal

Until Congress abolishes, or at least radically reforms, this anti-American-worker program, the president can at least put it on hold until the unemployment rate is back to pre-Wuhan levels.

Work Permits for H-1B Spouses? 

It’s not clear why “temporary” workers like H-1Bs are even allowed to bring family members with them, but they are. But until the Obama Administration, spouses weren’t given work permits, and the law still does not provide employment authorization to what are known as H-4 visa holders.

As a sop to the tech companies, who wanted to make being an H-1B more attractive, the Obama Administration gave certain spouses work permits through regulation—there may be 75,000 of these temporary foreign workers. A new regulation unwinding the dubious Obama rule was submitted to the White House more than one year ago for approval—and there it sits. This doesn’t even require a Presidential Proclamation—just a call from the Oval Office to the Office of Management and Budget to approve the rule for publication in the Federal Register.

Optional Practical ‘Training’

Another made-up foreign worker program to which Congress never consented is the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. In fact, it’s one of the largest guest-worker programs, with more than 300,000 participants.

It started as a one-year internship program for just-graduated foreign students. Near the end of the George W. Bush Administration, Microsoft lobbyists cooked up a scheme to turn OPT into a full-fledged guest-worker program. Now foreign students who majored in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, math) and have graduated—thus completing the purpose for which they were allowed to come here—can masquerade as continuing students for three more years, but instead of studying, they’re working at companies in hopes of being sponsored for an H-1B visa.

Next month hundreds of thousands of young Americans will be graduating from college and will start looking for work in the worst job market in their (or their parents’ and maybe even their grandparents’) lifetimes. The foreign students graduating at the same time should not be able to stay and compete with them for employment. Ending this ridiculous program can be done through regulation, but in the meantime, the president should pause it until the Wuhan depression is over.

Suspend the H-2B Program

Those are a few of the white-collar programs the president should pause in his follow-on proclamation. What about programs importing foreign workers to compete with blue-collar Americans?

The H-2B program is for less-skilled seasonal work that isn’t in agriculture. It’s capped at 66,000 foreign workers per year, about half in landscaping, with most of the rest in forestry, amusement parks, meat-processing, and housekeeping. These are not “jobs Americans won’t do”: around two-thirds of landscaping and meat-packing jobs are done by native-born Americans, as are three-quarters of forestry jobs and 90 percent of carnival employees. Even among maids and housekeepers, about half are native-born.

These visas are released in two seasonal batches, half in the spring, half in the fall; the president should suspend the fall visas. And there’s some indication he might do so, since a planned increase of 35,000 visas (authorized but not mandated by Congress) was canceled at the last minute earlier this month—by, I’m told, the direct intervention of the president, since DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, unbelievably, was going to let it proceed.

Summer Work Travel

The last of the foreign worker programs I’ll mention (there are lots more) is the Summer Work Travel program. It’s labeled as a “cultural exchange” program but is really just for cheap labor. It imports more than 100,000 foreign college students each year to work mainly in the kind of summer jobs American teens used to be hired for. Whatever the cultural exchange value of such a program, under current conditions it cannot be allowed to operate. A Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague of mine prepared a widely reported exposé of the program, one installment of which began like this:

As the 2011 summer season in the beach resort town of Ocean City, Md., wound down in early September, a server at the Fish Tales Restaurant told of observing the bewilderment of job-seeking young Americans as they encounter the power of the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.

“American kids will come in May when the season is just getting started, and we tell them, ‘Sorry, we’re all full,’” said Trina Warner. “And they say, ‘Already?’ They have no idea that foreign students have already been hired,” she said.

Then she added, “They don’t know how the system works.”

The system needs to start working for American workers. And until thoroughgoing reforms can be passed through Congress, the president needs to suspend these and all other programs that import foreign workers to compete with Americans for the duration of the current economic crisis. He stumbled last week, but he has another chance.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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