Trump administration extends work visa ban, creating uncertainty for Canadians

The Trump administration said Monday that it is extending a ban on green cards issued outside the United States until the end of the year and adding many temporary work visas to the freeze — including those used heavily by technology companies and multinational corporations — tossing a cloud of uncertainty over thousands of Canadians, including cross-border workers and their families.

The administration cast the effort as a way to free up jobs in an economy reeling from the coronavirus. A senior official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity estimated the restrictions will free up to 525,000 jobs for Americans.

The ban, while temporary, would amount to major restructuring of legal immigration if made permanent, a goal that had eluded the administration before the pandemic. Long-term changes targeting asylum seekers and high-tech workers are also being sought.

Business groups pressed hard to limit the changes, but got little of what they wanted, marking a victory for immigration hardliners as Trump seeks to further solidify their support ahead of the November election.

The ban on new visas applies to H-1B visas, which are widely used by major American and Indian technology company workers and their families, H-2B visas for nonagricultural seasonal workers, J-1 visas for cultural exchanges and L-1 visas for managers and other key employees of multinational corporations.

Trump has wanted to suspend the H-1B program since he started the presidency and he is using the high unemployment rate as a result of COVID as his justification…– Andrea Vaitzner, Canadian immigration lawyer

There will be exemptions for food processing workers, which make up about 15 per cent of H-2B visas, the official said. Health care workers assisting with the coronavirus fight will continue to be spared from the green-card freeze, though their exemption will be narrower.

“In the administration of our nation’s immigration system, we must remain mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labour market, particularly in the current extraordinary environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labour,” Trump wrote in his presidential proclamation.

Potential effect on Canadians

These moves could affect thousands of Canadians. They are far more severe than an earlier immigration announcement from Trump in April, which affected only applications for permanent immigration visas.

The new provisions touch work visas used by many Canadians. Canadians filed more than 4,000 H-1B applications in each of the last two years, and numerous others would get L1 business visas in a normal year, including executives working for cross-border companies.

The administration cast the effort as a way to free up jobs in an economy reeling from the coronavirus. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

People potentially affected by the changes were struggling Monday night to untangle the exact effect on their lives. The order left numerous questions unanswered — and even immigration lawyers were racing to unpack the implications. 

One Montreal immigration lawyer, Andrea Vaitzner, said it’s not clear, for instance, whether there might be exemptions for Canadians on the L1 ban, based on trade agreements allowing intra-company transfers.

Trump’s initial 60-day ban on green cards issued abroad was set to expire Monday. That announcement, which largely targeted family members, drew a surprisingly chilly reception from immigration hardliners, who said the president didn’t go far enough.

Appeasing immigration hardliners

The new steps to include non-immigrant visas went a long toward appeasing hardliners.

“This is a bold move by the Trump administration to protect American jobs,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restrictions. “Not all the items on our checklist of needed actions are included in today’s announcement, but the corporate lobbyists who were desperately fighting for exceptions to protect their clients’ access to cheap foreign labour have largely been rebuffed.”

Vaitzner said the administration was using the pandemic as an excuse.

“Trump has wanted to suspend the H-1B program since he started the presidency and he is using the high unemployment rate as a result of COVID as his justification for suspending a program he disliked because it allowed foreign nationals to enter the U.S.,” she said. “His justification for suspending the program is based on some faulty assumptions in my opinion.”

She said those faulty assumptions include the lack of evidence that preventing H-1B applications will create new jobs in the U.S., and could wind up hurting U.S. companies. 

A senior U.S. official predicted the moves will open up to 525,000 jobs for Americans. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Thomas J. Donohue, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive officer, also said the measures will harm, not help, the American economy.

“Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back,” he said. “Restrictive changes to our nation’s immigration system will push investment and economic activity abroad, slow growth, and reduce job creation.”

A pro-immigration group with strong Silicon Valley backing, FWD.us, said the moves “will not only hinder efforts to save lives, but will prevent job creation and hurt our economy as our country struggles to recover.”

The freezes on visas issued abroad are designed to take effect immediately. Other changes, including restrictions on work permits for asylum seekers, will go through a formal rule-making process that takes months.

The administration is proposing a new way of awarding H-1B visas, the official said, awarding them by highest salary instead of by lottery.

H-1B visas are capped at 85,000 a year for people with “highly specialized knowledge” and minimum of a bachelor’s degree, often in science, technology, engineering, teaching and accounting. Critics say high-tech companies have used the visas as a tool to outsource jobs to foreigners, replacing Americans.

Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. was the largest H-1B employer in the 2018 fiscal year, followed by Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Infosys Ltd., Deloitte Consulting LLP and Microsoft Corp. Other major employers include Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Google and Facebook Inc.

Changes for asylum seekers

The rule against asylum seekers, scheduled to take effect Aug. 25, would make it much more difficult for them to get work permits by, among other things, lengthening the waiting time to apply from 150 days to a year and barring applicants who cross the border illegally.

The 328-page regulation — signed by Chad Mizelle, the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s acting general counsel, who is considered an ally of White House adviser Stephen Miller — says limiting work permits will remove a major incentive for people to come to the United States for asylum.

It is the latest in a long string of measures that make asylum more difficult to get — almost unattainable, according to some immigrant advocacy groups.

“The rule will prevent many refugees from feeding, supporting, and housing themselves and their families,” said Eleanor Acer, Human Rights First’s senior director for refugee protection. “Asylum seekers and their families already struggle to survive under existing work authorization wait times. But this rule will make survival impossible for many.”

Read more at CBC.ca

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