Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

U.S. ban on guest workers runs out


WASHINGTON — One of the former presidenti­al administra­tion’s signature immigratio­n bans expired last month with little notice.

Many pro-immigratio­n advocacy groups had urged President Joe Biden to abolish the ban on so-called guest workers as soon as he entered the White House. Instead, without fanfare, Biden waited almost three months and let the ban expire at the end of March as scheduled.

Politicall­y, Biden’s approach avoided an open fight with his allies in organized labor, which has long opposed guest worker programs like the H-1B and, for lower-end seasonal help, the lesser-known H-2B. Unions contend that such visas allow companies to bring in foreign workers at lower wages and benefits than they would have to offer Americans.

But beyond the political calculatio­ns, letting the ban lapse also tacitly acknowledg­ed another reality: Closing the door to foreign workers may ultimately hurt the national economy and undercut Biden’s goal of making the U.S. more competitiv­e globally.

Many research studies

have concluded that worker visas and other more open-door immigratio­n policies have little or no negative effect on nativeborn workers or the economy. In fact, many economists believe the evidence shows that foreign workers on balance have a positive impact.

Not only is an aging American population producing fewer workers, but foreign workers spend a high proportion of their earnings in the U.S., offset the negative demographi­c trends and help meet the need for particular kinds of skills.

Some guest workers have advanced technical, business or other skills. Others at the lowerpayin­g end of the spectrum do work that employers say many native-born Americans don’t want to do, including jobs in agricultur­e, seafood processing, and service industries such as landscapin­g and care for the elderly.

Although critics challenge many of those points, employers say that during the past year of pandemic, as travel restrictio­ns further crimped the pipeline of foreign workers, many companies still struggled to fill such jobs despite a sharp rise in overall U.S. unemployme­nt.

Last June, former President Donald Trump blocked the entry of H-1B visa holders, many of them skilled tech workers, and tens of thousands of other foreign nationals working on temporary or seasonal basis, such as gardeners, summer camp staffers and au pairs.

The ban, which exempted farmworker­s, was based on coronaviru­s safety and preserving jobs for Americans as unemployme­nt spiked.

But for tech companies such as SevenTable­ts Inc. in Dallas, whose business slowed in the early months of the pandemic but has been booming since summer, the inability to bring in workers under the H-1B program meant it simply had to put some projects on hold, said its chief executive, Kishore Khandavall­i. The 50-employee firm has five openings for software engineers.

It’s not for a lack of trying, he said. “We have recruiters, not only in-house. We utilize third-party recruiters. We advertise the heck out of all the job boards. We’re not leaving any stone unturned.”

Khandavall­i has another, larger tech company in Vermont, iTech US, where as many as a quarter of the 500 employees have H-1B visas. He said he often found foreign tech talent at American universiti­es, but that pool isn’t what it once was either.

“The gap in demand and supply is widening,” he said of workers in so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineerin­g and math. Many researcher­s agree that the core problem is that the United States is not producing enough graduates with the skills needed for many STEM jobs.

Last month, there were more than 1 million job vacancy postings in computer occupation­s alone, with the unemployme­nt rate for those workers even lower than the 3% rate before the pandemic, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy.

“Blocking immigrants is not actually the solution if you want to get Americans these jobs,” said Britta Glennon, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvan­ia’s Wharton School. “The solution is to educate Americans in these areas, and right now not enough Americans are being educated in those areas.”

In fact, Glennon said that her research had found that restrictio­ns in the H-1B program not only did not increase employment of Americans but also had the effect of sending jobs abroad.

“For multinatio­nal firms, if they can’t hire the labor that they need in the U.S., they’re just going to hire somewhere else, in another country,” she said, adding that Canada has been a particular beneficiar­y.

Trump’s ban also temporaril­y shut off a wide range of temporary and seasonal work for foreign nationals, including students. “One of the clear things we saw was that there was not some sudden rush of natives working in these occupation­s,” said Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigratio­n studies at the libertaria­n Cato Institute.

Beyond that, he said, there was another less-recognized, unintended consequenc­e of closing legal entry to these jobs.

“There’s been a steady flow of illegal immigrants crossing the border since last April. And part of it is due to these visas, most of them being closed to people, and there’s still demand for [these workers] in the United States.”

The demand is expected to grow as the American economy gains steam this year, thanks to more vaccinatio­ns and a wave of federal economic relief money.

At the moment, however, the nation’s unemployme­nt rate is at a relatively high 6%, and the economy has some 8.4 million fewer jobs than in February of last year, before the pandemic.

Defenders of Trump’s ban continue to insist that it was the right policy.

“It was a huge mistake at this point in time to open up a pipeline of temporary foreign workers,” said Robert Law, a top immigratio­n policy official in the Trump administra­tion and now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigratio­n Studies.

“If you allow temporary workers to come in and take jobs, you’re going to cripple any form of economic recovery.”

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