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Trump gambles on immigrant workers during coronavirus

“It’s reprehensible,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates more immigration restrictions. “Specifically importing workers into jobs unemployed Americans would be doing is absurd.”

A Department of Homeland Security official said the administration’s moves were surprising given the “soaring unemployment rate.” A record-shattering 6.6 million people filed for their first unemployment benefits last week, as scores of industries have fully shuttered during the pandemic.

In response to pressure from opponents, the Trump administration did backtrack on some of its plans, pausing the approval of 35,000 more seasonal worker visas, pending further review. But the other moves remain in place for now.

Trump made cracking down on immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, promising to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico and deport millions of migrants who arrived in the country illegally. In his inaugural address, he promised to rebuild the country with American labor. “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American,” he said.

Since the pandemic began, the administration has restricted foreign visitors from China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, and postponed hearings for immigrants wanting to remain in the U.S. More broadly, it paused visa processing for those that aren’t being granted exemptions.

But it has also begun easing the process for companies looking to hire foreign workers, altering some paperwork requirements, including allowing electronic signatures and waiving the physical inspection of documents.

The administration even talked about boosting the number of visas offered to wealthy immigrants who invest money in the U.S., though interest in that has cooled on Capitol Hill, according to the business leader.

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo

DHS is expected to extend visas that are expiring but can’t be renewed because federal offices are closed, according to the business group representative. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf confirmed this week that he is considering that, among other changes.

“We’re looking at a … variety of different options that I think we will have soon, and it will be very beneficial,” he said.

The White House and DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump touted the importance of agricultural visas on Wednesday in response to a question at a news conference at the White House.

“We want them to come in,” he said. “We’re not closing the border so that we can’t get any of those people to come in. They’ve been there for years and years, and I’ve given the commitment to the farmers: They’re going to continue to come. Or we’re not going to have any farmers.”

NumbersUSA, which supports immigration restrictions, has been railing against the changes for days on social media and in alerts to supporters, specifically calling out Wolf, who once lobbied for an association that wanted to keep a visa program for foreign workers.

“@DHS_Wolf is going to admit tens of thousands of foreign guest workers in the coming month to satisfy the corporate lobby,” it posted on Twitter this week. “These guest workers will be dispersed across the entire U.S. putting Americans out of work and hampering efforts to control the coronavirus.”

The business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had been pushing for temporary slots for immigrants coming to the U.S., saying companies were struggling to fill jobs as unemployment has fallen. It continued lobbying even after the coronavirus, according to the business industry representatives.

“Many immigrant workers are currently helping our nation fight the spread of Covid-19,” said Jon Baselice, the chamber’s executive director of immigration policy, citing medical professionals, scientists and agricultural workers. “Their contributions to our national well-being are critically important to our safety and security until we flatten the curve on this pandemic.”

Immigrant advocates have joined in the call for not restricting foreign labor during the current pandemic.

“It’s never been more clear that the American economy depends on immigrants and immigration,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. “This is a community that is currently contributing on the front lines and is also able to come in and meet gaps in the labor force.”

Immigrant advocates have cautioned that being on the front line during coronavirus puts these foreign laborers in harm’s way. The issue made headlines after a video surfaced of farm workers laboring close to each other without proper protective gear. María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of the Latino political organization Voto Latino, said immigrants who don’t speak English well might not understand confusing guidelines about how to protect themselves against the virus.

Despite Trump’s campaign vow to reduce immigration, the number of immigrants with temporary visas has steadily increased during his presidency, reaching 925,000 in 2018, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

While there is no cap for the total number of temporary workers, there are annual limits on several of the dozen-plus visa categories. More than 1 million immigrants are allowed into the United States each year on a permanent basis, but only a fraction — 140,000 — come through employment categories.

Companies also request many more foreign worker visas than are approved. On Thursday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that companies initially were requesting 275,000 visas in fiscal 2021 for skilled workers in specialty occupations. Those visas, dubbed H-1B, are capped at 85,000 annually.

The Trump administration has also worked to prioritize visa processing for medical workers, given America’s resource-strained health system.

Last Thursday, the State Department encouraged medical professionals seeking a work or exchange visitor visa to contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a visa appointment. Hours later, after some criticism, the department clarified that the person must already have an approved visa petition.

The State Department later announced it would also waive interviews for some temporary worker visas, saying the program is “essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority.”

The prioritization for some workers comes amid a broader suspension of visa services at embassies and consulates around the world. But the Trump administration created a carveout after a push by members of Congress and agriculture groups, who already had been coping with a worker shortage and the fallout from Trump’s trade wars.

Separately, DHS had announced before the pandemic that it planned to allow an additional 35,000 workers into the country on non-agricultural seasonal worker visas as it tried “to strike a careful balance that benefits American businesses and American workers.”

The visas, dubbed H-2B, have been regularly used for workers in the landscaping, housekeeping and construction industries, and had been capped at 66,000. DHS has added additional visas in that category for the past three years.

The administration discussed reversing the decision, according to two people familiar with the situation, but moved forward last week with the plan. Employers expected to be able to hire workers within weeks, according to the business industry representative.

But after criticism, DHS reversed course yet again. “DHS’s rule on the H-2B cap is on hold pending review due to present economic circumstances,” the department tweeted.

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