Making America great again by crippling the economy.
For the past 20 years, American politicians have mostly debated illegal immigration to the United States. But inside the Donald Trump administration, there appear to be discussions that go much further. A draft memo is raising the idea of a broad crackdown on the legal employment of foreign-born workers.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee to serve as attorney general and guru on immigration policy, and senior adviser Steve Bannon have both been longtime restrictionists across all categories of migration, so this isn’t entirely surprising. And the possible moves being circulated in a draft memo reported by the Washington Post and published last week by Vox aren’t that extreme, for the simple reason that without an act of Congress there isn’t that much Trump can do to alter the legal immigration system. But Trump does have some discretion in this area, and he could use it to broadly crack down on the employment of foreign-born workers in the United States.
If Trump acts on these ideas, he is likely to encounter tension with segments of the business community, and overwhelmingly likely to harm economic growth and lower incomes for native-born Americans.
A broad crackdown on guest workers
The order, titled “Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs,” proposes taking aim at a range of nonimmigrant visa programs that let foreign-born people live and work in the United States for a limited span of time.
One provision would shorten the span of time a foreigner is allowed to work in the United States under the Optional Practical Training rule. OPT allows a foreigner who had a student visa to work for a limited amount of time in the United States after graduation. The Obama administration expanded the OPT window from 12 months to 17 months.
Two provisions deal with H-1B visas that allow companies to hire foreign-born guest workers with technical skills. Obama acted to give the spouses of H-1B holders permission to work, thus de facto expanding the foreign-born skilled workforce through the back door. Trump will reverse that. The order would direct agencies to “consider ways” to alter the way the program works to “ensure that beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest.” This likely means trying to ensure that H-1Bs largely go to America’s best-known and highest paying tech companies, rather than, as is frequently the case today, serving to help companies that mostly do back-office outsourcing work.
Another provision would call for a Department of Homeland Security crackdown on L-1 visas, featuring “site visits.” L-1s are designed to allow companies to transfer foreign-born managers to oversee US-based operations, but in a practical sense serve a similar role to H-1Bs in generally allowing for skilled temporary workers.
Another provision targets the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program, which largely brings foreign workers to do seasonal retail work in beach towns and other communities that see a summertime influx. It’s not clear that Trump really can do much of anything here, but the order directs the State Department to “improve protections of US workers.”
Other even vaguer provisions direct DHS to “improve monitoring of foreign students” and “clarify comprehensively” that visitors on tourist visas aren’t allowed to work in the United States.
It’s noteworthy that the draft does not target two of the largest guest-worker visa categories, neither the H-2A visa for seasonal agricultural workers or the H-2B visa for seasonal nonagricultural workers. Perhaps by coincidence, Trump uses H-2B workers at Mar-a-Lago and H-2A workers at Trump Vineyard.