The president has already barred many foreign workers during the coronavirus pandemic, but he is facing pressure from conservatives to go further.
President Donald Trump is expected to extend and expand restrictions on foreign workers coming into the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, aiming to appease a frustrated political base as Americans try to return to work.
Immigration hardliners have been lobbying Trump to take the step, which would broaden an April executive order that barred several categories of foreign workers from entering the country for a temporary period. They argue that the directive didn’t go far enough, given the skyrocketing unemployment rate and an election only months away.
But the expected expansion risks angering business leaders who insist foreign workers are still needed, even with so many Americans out of work, to keep vital industries staffed.
To try and balance the two sides, the administration is considering limiting the number of immigrants who come to the United States for cultural exchanges — generally those hired for summer jobs at amusement parks, camps and resorts — as well as students attending U.S. colleges hired for temporary employment, according to four people, including an administration official and Republican Capitol Hill staffer involved with the discussions. It is also looking at cutting visas for skilled workers in specialty occupations and seasonal workers who work in industries that include landscaping, housekeeping and construction industries, they say.
Together, more than a 1 million immigrants annually collectively receive those visas — about 70 percent of all guest workers in the United States, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Trump is still weighing even broader restrictions, though, that would bar all categories of guest workers except those who work on farms, according to a senior DHS official. But a White House official said all decisions, including immigration, are being viewed through the lens of reopening the country, making it extremely unlikely Trump take such a sweeping step and anger business leaders.
“They’re worrying about the wrong political fallout,” complained Mark Krikorian, who serves as executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and favors the broadest restrictions.
Trump is expected to sign his second order this week, according to the four people. But they caution that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, could help lead a push to scale back the directive. It was Kushner who convinced the president in an Oval Office meeting in April to carve out business-friendly exceptions for the hundreds of thousands of temporary workers, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
Any new order would continue to exempt health care professionals; those entering for law enforcement or national security reasons; Iraqi and Afghan nationals who work for the U.S. government; and members of the U.S. military, the DHS official said.
Trump could accomplish increased restrictions in two ways: by either suspending a visa category or by implementing incentives for companies to hire American workers, including requiring them to pay higher wages to foreign workers and to try to hire Americans first, which is not a factor for all visas.
DHS, which is advocating for the changes, and the Labor Department sent their recommendations to the White House Friday.
Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney who handled immigration issues at the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, spent Friday wrapping up his guest worker cases in anticipation of the changes next week.
Fresco said suspending the cultural exchange visa known as the J-1 would have more of a political effect than a practical one. The vast majority of J-1 visas are given to those who come to the U.S. for summer employment, which will be significantly reduced because of the coronavirus.
The administration is expected to continue to review the changes regularly, likely every 30 to 60 days, said a Republican Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the discussions. The measures could extend into the fall or even until the labor market has fully recovered or a vaccine is developed.
Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser who plays an outsized role on immigration policy, told representatives from conservative groups on an April call that Trump’s initial action will lead to more permanent limits because it cuts down on the ability of immigrants to sponsor extended family members, according to a person familiar with the call. But others say Miller and acting deputy DHS secretary Ken Cuccinelli were just trying to reassure those frustrated with Trump’s executive order.
The expected actions make it likely Trump will try to make immigration a focus of his reelection campaign, just like in 2016, when Trump promised to build a wall on the southern border and deport millions of migrants who arrived in the country illegally. In his inaugural address, Trump promised to build with American labor. “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American,” he said.
The White House and DHS did not respond to requests for comment.
In a Fox News radio interview after Trump signed the first order, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf acknowledged the administration would be targeting temporary workers, including students from China — where the virus originated — studying in the United States.
“We’re certainly very concerned about the number of visa programs that Chinese students can use to come into the country and study and stay, and eventually work,” Wolf told Brian Kilmeade. “We see some of these programs have been potentially abused in the past.”
The largest share of international students in the U.S. — 34 percent — come from China, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors report, a survey the State Department sponsors.
Some higher education institutions are bracing for cuts. Arizona State University’s president sent a letter to 200 CEOs urging them to contact their congressional delegations to support the visas. Two education industry groups developed a new set of talking points around the issue.
The issue has been on Miller’s agenda for years. As a Capitol Hill staffer, he helped draft a bill that targeted the visas for students and cultural exchange workers, which according to the Economic Policy Institute statistics, now equal about 450,000 people, or 27 percent of the total number of guest workers each year.
As the coronavirus outbreak initially spread, the Trump administration quietly continued to allow foreign workers to enter the country, even easing requirements for immigrants to get certain jobs — allowing electronic signatures, waiving the physical inspection of documents and extending deadlines.
Then Trump abruptly tweeted he would stop all immigration into the United States as the unemployment rate soared to nearly 15 percent. But the next day he agreed to scale it back.
Trump signed the order, blocking most people for 60 days from receiving a permanent residency visa, or green card, though he continues to process visas for hundreds of thousands of temporary employees — the largest source of immigration. He also exempted wealthy investors and spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.
Prior to that move, Trump had already restricted foreign visitors from China, Europe, Canada and Mexico and paused most routine visa processing and refugee cases — which means the actions may not have been necessary. On Sunday, Trump also barred travelers from Brazil.
Conservatives urged Trump to do more. Four senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri — sent a letter to him asking for a pause guest worker visas for 60 days to a year, “or until unemployment has returned to normal levels.” Six House members, including House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), followed with their own letter.
Hardline groups lobbied, too. NumbersUSA, which supports immigration restrictions, has been using the hashtag #expandtheban to alert supporters, specifically calling out Wolf, who once lobbied for an association that wanted to keep a visa program for foreign workers.
“With growing unemployment numbers totaling over 30 million, it is unconscionable that the Federal government continues to allow guest workers to flow in, taking jobs that would otherwise go to Americans,” wrote Dan Stein, president of Federation of American Immigration Reform May 4.
Those seeking immigration restrictions say Americans are on their side. Recent polls show a majority support a temporary pause on immigration during coronavirus.
At the same time, the business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing for temporary slots for immigrants coming to the U.S., saying companies were struggling to fill jobs as unemployment has fallen.
About 1.6 million jobs were filled by temporary labor migrants in the United States in 2017, accounting for just more than 1 percent of the labor force, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
While there is no cap for the total number of temporary workers, there are annual limits on several individual visa categories.
About the Author: Anita Kumar serves as White House correspondent and associate editor, covering President Donald Trump and helping organize and guide coverage for POLITICO’s White House team.