WASHINGTON: Four influential US senators are pressing President Donald Trump to suspend all guest worker visas including H-1B entries and optional practical training (OPT) for foreign students – freezing which will adversely affect India – amid a staggering American jobs wipeout not seen since the Great Depression.
In a letter to Trump just ahead of Labor department report on Friday that showed the coronavirus pandemic decimating 20.5 million jobs in April to cause a 14.7 per cent unemployment, the senators called for “suspension of new guest worker visas for at least the next year, or until unemployment has returned to normal levels,” arguing that “given the extreme lack of available jobs for American job-seekers, it defies common sense to admit additional foreign guest workers to compete for such limited employment.”
The lawmakers specifically sought the suspension, at a minimum, of H-2B visas (nonagricultural seasonal workers), H-lB visas (specialty occupation workers), the optional practical training (OPT) program (extension of foreign student visas after graduation) and the EB-5 immigrant visa program used by wealthy foreigners to get American residency in return for investment.
While the H-2B visas will primarily affect Mexican labor, the other categories will hurt India, whose IT service sector needs guest worker visas to fulfill contracts, even as such visas are used by aspiring immigrants as a route to US residency and citizenship. According to senators Chuck Grassley, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, the United States admits more than one million non-immigrant guest workers every year, and “there is no reason to admit most such workers when our unemployment is so high.”
Their letter to the US President, some of whose White House aides are fundamentally against all immigration, comes even as thousands of Indian H1B visa holders and students are in both long-term and short-term limbo, some of them also stuck in transit with the suspension of flights. US and Indian authorities are deluged with pleas from guest worker visa holders who were visiting India and are stranded there with the suspension of flights, and those who have lost jobs in the US and have 60 days to self-deport under terms of the H1B visa, which is subject to having a qualified job.
The call for suspension of optional practical training in particular has spooked thousands of Indian students who spend anywhere from $ 100,000 to $ 200,000 to obtain degrees from US colleges, and place their faith in a system that allows them to work in the US for one to three years (in case of STEM graduates) in paid internships that often segues into H1B visa-stapled jobs, and in the long run, into permanent residency and citizenship. In 2019, more than 223,000 former foreign students, some 40 per cent of them from India, had their OPT applications approved or extended.
With the pandemic lockdown decimating the jobs market, thousands of students who are currently getting their degrees by mail without even the convocation that typically take place in May-June (scrapped due to the shutdown), have no internships, let alone jobs at the end of their degree.
While in the past high tech immigration advocates such as Bill Gates argued that US educated STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematic) graduates are an asset to the US and should have a green card stapled to their degrees, the Republican senators maintained that with approximately one-fifth of the American workforce currently out of work, “there is no reason why unemployed Americans and recent college graduates should have to compete in such a limited job market against an influx of additional H-1B workers, most of whom work in business, technology, or STEM fields.”
Temporarily suspending the issuance of new H-1B visas would also protect the hundreds of thousands of H-18 workers and their families already working in the United States – workers who could otherwise be subject to deportation if they are laid off for more than 60 days, they said, suggesting that “appropriate exceptions could also be crafted to the H-1B program suspension to allow for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who wish to come to the United States to assist in combating the coronavirus pandemic.”
While Friday’s labor department report showed 20.5 million jobs wiped out in just the month of April to cause a 14.7 unemployment rate, the overall jobless number is much higher taking into account jobs lost in March and the millions who have not yet filed or have not been able to file for unemployment. At least 33.5 million have now filed for jobless aid in the past seven weeks bringing the US unemployment number close to 20 per cent.
President Trump said on Friday that the numbers were “fully expected” and pledged that “those jobs will all be back, and they’ll be back very soon.”