A post-COVID-19 economy demands limits on guest worker visas


June 1, 2020

By Tom Homan

There is a justified and renewed push by some Republicans to suspend guest workers coming into the country that in my opinion would not only help to protect our economy, but will help the 34 million displaced American workers.

Four senators have called for a suspension of all new guest worker visas for 60 days and of certain categories of guest worker visas for a year “or until unemployment has returned to normal levels.”

Of course, the immigrant advocacy organizations and groups that represent guest workers immediately pushed back and said the proposal would hurt the economy, claiming the move is politically motivated to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic and advance permanent restrictions on accepting new guest workers for most types of visas. It is amazing that these same groups that have used the pandemic as a way to release all immigrants from detention and implement their radical anti-borders agenda are now claiming exploitation by the Trump administration.     

It is my opinion that the push from the senators is good but does not go far enough. The president must use his emergency authority to immediately suspend the entry of the hundreds of thousands of high-tech as well as low-skilled temporary workers planning to come to the United States, issue regulations that put in place permanent protections for American workers and revoke the work authorization of those already in the country at this time. At the same time, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program also needs to be scrutinized. 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, American workers were being replaced or undercut by foreign workers in tech and other industries (e.g., “high-skilled” H-1Bs at AT&T and recent college grads by foreign students in OPT. With record unemployment crushing more than 30 million Americans, especially young people just graduating from college, importing more cheap foreign labor or allowing foreign nationals who are already here to continue to work while Americans continue to lose their jobs is simply unacceptable.

Can any reasonable person imagine why we would need to bring in more than 100,000 foreign college students this summer on “Summer Work-Travel” visas? I can’t.

While I’m on the record as supporting President Trump’s efforts to protect American workers, suspending the entry of immigrants who want to come here permanently, as the president did with his April 22 executive order; it needs to be expanded. Mr. Trump must take the next logical step and use that same emergency authority to issue a new executive order to cover temporary workers — who are often able to stay in the United States for years — and put lasting regulations in place that would protect American workers who are currently being replaced or undercut by them. 

If not, vulnerable Americans will remain in the same peril into the foreseeable future, long after the pandemic has lifted and the president’s executive orders have ended.

These regulatory actions must be undertaken as soon as possible, while any visa suspension for these programs is still in effect. Some simply require that the administration finish and publish regulations it is already working on, like a regulation that would reform the H-1B program; a regulation that would reform the OPT program; and a regulation that would rescind an Obama administration regulation allowing thousands of spouses of H-1B workers each year to get work permits.

This isn’t hard. It will just take the president sticking to his instincts to put America first. Around 4 million students will be graduating from college this spring, many with large loans, all looking for jobs. An immigration policy that puts America first would ensure that our students are first in line for employment.

Simply put, OPT has always been a controversial foreign-worker program created by the Obama and Bush administrations to allow foreign students to work in the United States for up to three years after graduation — tax-free. Employers who hire these foreign workers don’t have to pay taxes on them, making them cheaper hires than our American students.

OPT has grown expansively in recent years with more than 400,000 foreigners, primarily from China and India, receiving work permits as of 2018. They work in many different areas, including national security sensitive fields, with virtually no oversight. These jobs would otherwise go to American graduates looking to start a life for themselves in these difficult times.

The program is also plagued by significant fraud. Thousands of foreign nationals who have obtained work permits through OPT have done so by claiming to work for employers that don’t exist. Thousands of these individuals have attended phony “schools” that exist only to help foreigners break our immigration laws. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is actively investigating the significant threats OPT creates, but the effort is taking up resources the agency simply doesn’t have.

Fortunately, the program is entirely within ICE’s control and can be ended, or at least significantly limited to fit within resource constraints, through a quick regulatory fix.

It’s time to act and make smart changes. President Trump has shown great courage to do the right thing for American citizens on immigration issues. I am confident he will act similarly regarding guest work visas.  

Tom Homan is the former Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a Senior Fellow at the Immigration Reform Law Institute.  

Also published at: Tom Homan, A post-COVID-19 economy demands limits on guest worker visas, The Washington Times, June 1, 2020.

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