In Donald Trump's first week as president, he's made illegal immigration a top priority, using executive action to order that construction start on his famous proposed wall and threaten to pull federal funds from "sanctuary cities." These moves, though aggressive, closely follow promises Trump made during the campaign and Republican policies generally—but less discussed are potential plans to narrow and restrict the avenues for legal immigration.
Workers come to the US a variety of ways, but one significant avenue is the H-1B visa, a permit intended to allow skilled foreigners to fill jobs in America that can't be filled by US residents. Often the visa lasts just a few years, but for some, it is an avenue to permanent residency or citizenship.Every year the H-1B program brings in just shy of 100,000 skilled workers to fill roles in a host of professions, from nursing to modeling. But the vast majority of slots go to Indian IT workers brought onboard by tech companies as coders and engineers—although these workers are highly skilled, Silicon Valley and outsourcing firms have been criticized for manipulating the program to bring in cheaper labor, making a mockery of its intentions. This has led, explains immigration lawyer Greg Siskind, to "bipartisan support in both Houses of Congress to address perceived abuses in the H-1B program… Even strong defenders of skilled-worker immigration like [Republican] Darrell Issa and [Democrat] Zoe Lofgren are proposing changes."
There've been previous attempts to rein in H-1B abuses. The annual cap is about half of what it was about a decade ago and application costs went up last year to discourage spamming the lottery system used to allocate them. Yet while there is legislative consensus on the need to reform the system, there's debate on how to go about it: One bipartisan bill currently under consideration, which was first introduced last year but flopped, proposed upping the salary requirements for eligible jobs and lowering the number of slots available. Another (which likewise failed when first introduced) would have eliminated the lottery system, prioritized more highly skilled immigrants with higher salaries, and favored US-educated candidates. In both cases, these bills—like other reform attempts—languished after being sent to relevant committees, either because there was not enough willpower or bandwidth to consider them or because they simply lacked support.
Outside of Congress, observers likewise agree H-1B is a failure (Trump alluded to it in a speech shortly after his election), but few can agree on fixes. Chase Norlin, the CEO of Transmosis, a Silicon Valley group that aims to funnel skilled American workers into new training and open jobs, thinks the US should put a moratorium on the whole system because it "is fubar to begin with," he said. For him, the problem is that the H-1B process creates a stream of short-term immigrants who learn the ins and outs of US tech firms, then return home—instead, the US should be focusing on nurturing its homegrown talent
But the H-1B system, controversial and prominent as it is, is just one area of legal immigration that stands to be limited. Trump has already signaled he'll be ending or curtailing refugee resettlement, and others have proposed legislation seeking to reform things like birthright citizenship, the practice of granting status to people born on US soil.
"Legislation may be introduced to try to protect US workers from immigrants," Cornell Law School immigration expert Stephen Yale-Loehr told me, "either by reducing the number of green cards for lesser-skilled immigrants or by imposing higher wage requirements on employers that want to hire foreign nationals. There may also be proposals to eliminate the green-card category for brothers and sisters of US citizens, since that is so backlogged."
These issues are on the back burner in a Congress mostly consumed with healthcare and illegal immigration at the moment; Yale-Loehr doesn't think there will be much time for legal immigration.
But Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group, sees an executive push for action on the horizon. He noted that Jeff Sessions, who has a long history of voting to cap and limit legal immigration programs, will likely play a huge role in guiding immigration issues under Trump. "Senator Sessions led the effort to end immigration as we know it," said Noorani.
"I think the canary in the coal mine passed when Sessions was nominated to become the attorney general and his staff filtered through the administration," he added. "It's a clear signal the Trump administration is going to undermine the American economy by closing us off to the world."
Some hoped that Trump, who has at times acknowledged the value of bringing good people into the country, would be moderated by pragmatism and pro-business, pro-skilled immigration voices in the administration. But aleaked draft of a potential executive action indicates that Trump may be considering making the US more hostile to numerous forms of legal immigration as part of the nativist, protectionist agenda set forth in his inaugural address. If enacted, this action would reverse several Obama orders that helped out the spouses of H-1B workers and people ineligible for green cards because they were once in the country illegally, review the impact of a bevy of programs on US workers, and increase monitoring on all foreign students and employees in the nation. All in all, it seems that Trump is set to go all-in on his "America first" stuff—not just deporting undocumented immigrants and building a wall, but making it harder for foreigners to gain legal status, all in the name of protecting American labor.
"There is a real clear message that immigrants and immigration are a harm to the country," said Noorani—not just illegal immigration, he added, but the presence of foreigners on US soil more broadly.
There's speculation that Trump will support some new forms of legal immigration, like a startup visa to make it easier for entrepreneurs to come to and start businesses in America, and existing visas for potential job creators. Still, as Transmosis's Norlin told me, the natural extension of an America-first agenda is a push to restrict many forms of employment-based and skilled immigration. And the end result of that mentality is a world in which skilled and legal immigration is narrowed to a fine point, allowing in only those who by immigrating offer to employ Americans or those who are absolutely necessary for American businesses to function. Even allowing in that last cohort would just be a stopgap until Americans could be trained to fill those jobs.
As the H-1B program's problems show, immigration policy is tough to navigate. Any move to restrict legal immigration will face major pushback from those who believe (with evidence) that foreigners generally enrich and are the bedrock of the nation. But with Trump in office, a very different worldview is likely to become ascendant and be pushed hard in coming immigration debates.
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