US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — President Donald Trump signed an order Monday temporarily halting access to several employment-based visas, affecting hundreds of thousands of people seeking to work in the US.

The order freezes new H1-B and H-4 visas, used by technology workers and their families, L visas for intracompany transfers, and most J visas for work- and study-abroad programmes, including au pairs, through to the end of the year.

The issuance of new green cards will also remain halted through the end of the year.

The action will also pause some H2-B visas for seasonal workers, with an exception for those in the food-processing industry, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Monday.

Trump acted with the US facing an unemployment rate of 13.3% after businesses closed or reduced staff in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The president’s order won’t affect immigrant workers who already hold the visas.

“Under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programmes authorising such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” Trump said in his order.

Speaking on Saturday in an interview with Fox News, Trump said he wants Americans to take jobs that would otherwise go to people granted the visas.

“We have plenty of people looking for jobs,” he told Fox. “I think it’s going to make a lot of people very happy. And it’s common sense.”

Disruption

Trump tweeted at the height of the coronavirus pandemic that he planned to “temporarily suspend immigration into the US”. Industry groups, such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the Information Technology Industry Council, wrote to Trump to express concern that restrictions would disrupt business and hamper growth.

The US issued more than 900,000 visas in fiscal year 2019 in the categories Trump plans to freeze.

In the past few years, the administration has moved to tighten the H-1B program, and the approval rate for applications has fallen. The technology industry has relied on H-1B visas to hire foreign talent, particularly in the fields of science and engineering. Critics say some companies have abused the program to displace American workers.

H-1B visas are temporary work authorisations for people with highly specialised knowledge. The cap for those visas is 85,000 annually. H-4 visas are issued to immediate family members of H-1B visa holders.

The Computing Technology Industry Association, which includes IT companies, called the administration’s actions on H1-B visas “extremely disappointing”.

“H-1B visa holders do not supplant American workers but instead help ensure US innovation and economic growth,” said Cinnamon Rogers, the group’s executive vice-president for public advocacy, in a statement. “Making it more difficult for bright minds to work in the US only benefits our competitors abroad who will attract their talents to build and develop cutting-edge, job-creating goods and services.”

The H1-B programme will be restructured to put an emphasis on would-be immigrants with the highest salary offers once the programme restarts in 2021, the official said.

L visas are for temporary intracompany transfers for those who are in management positions or have specialised knowledge. J visas are for work- and study-based exchange visitor programmes, including au pairs.

Bloomberg

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