Who will be hardest hit by Trump’s suspension of foreign-worker visas?

June 23, 2020, 11:10 AM UTC

The U.S. is temporarily suspending an array of foreign visas, and workers from India and the tech industry may disproportionately feel the repercussions.

On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to temporarily halt visas for foreign workers through the end of the year. Trump’s order will specifically target H-1B and H-4 visas, which are primarily used by workers in the tech industry and their families. The order also halts the issuance of L visas, used for intracompany transfers, and J visas for seasonal work like camp counseling and study-abroad programs. Trump also extended a ban on applications for green cards, which provide permanent residency to non-U.S. citizens, to the end of 2020.

In a statement, Trump said that the ban was put in place because the U.S. has a “moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens.” The administration says that the new order won’t extend to current visa holders or those who have already been issued valid visas.

The coronavirus pandemic had already slowed the issuing of H-1B visas to a trickle this year, since the U.S. State Department suspended all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments globally since March. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued just 143 visas this May, compared to more than 13,500 in May 2019. News of the latest clampdown immediately drew rebukes from U.S. tech and business communities.

“Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses, and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back,” Thomas Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “Restrictive changes to our nation’s immigration system will push investment and economic activity abroad, slow growth, and reduce job creation.”

If past U.S. government data is any guide, workers from India and the U.S. technology sector stand to be the hardest hit by the suspensions.

H-1B visa program

In 2019, USCIS said the U.S. had 388,403 H-1B visa holders, who work in “occupations that require the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge.” That sum included both newly approved applicants (which are capped at 85,000 per year), as well as those granted extensions on existing visas.

Of the visa holders, 278,491 or roughly 72% were from India. The second-largest contingent of H-1B visa holders came from China with 50,609 visas or 13%.

The U.S. grants more H-1B visas to Indian citizens than to citizens from every other country combined.

The U.S. tech industry is the top employer of H-1B visa recipients and stands to be the biggest loser amid the freeze.

In 2019, workers in “computer-related occupations” accounted for 65% of all H-1B visa holders in the U.S. According to the USCIS employer data hub, U.S., Amazon accounted for at least 7,500 H-1B applications in 2019, while Google and Apple submitted over 6,500 and 3,500, respectively.

The executive order could also deal a blow to firms based in India.

Tata Consultancy Services, an IT services and consultancy firm based in Mumbai, is India’s second-largest company by market capitalization, with operations in India and the U.S. In 2019, Tata filed roughly 10,000 H-1B applications to bring foreign workers to staff the company’s U.S. offices. Critics have long argued that India’s IT outsourcing companies like Tata have taken advantage of the H-1B visa rule to build their U.S. businesses by paying Indian workers lower wages than American counterparts.

Nasscom, a trade group in India that represents IT outsourcing firms like Tata and Infosys, denies that its members take jobs away from American workers, citing unfilled vacancies in the U.S. IT services sector. The group came out against Trump’s order, saying that it will harm the U.S. economy.

Other visa holders

Indian workers could also be severely hit by the suspension of L visas, which are granted to high-level executives transferring within their companies to U.S. offices. In 2019, Indian citizens accounted for the highest share of the L-1 visas for executives and L-2 visas for executives’ families.

The suspensions of other visas could be felt in a range of business, cultural, and academic spheres in the U.S.

H-2B visas, awarded to seasonal laborers who work in nonagricultural jobs, go mostly to Mexican workers. In 2019, 74% of the nearly 100,000 H-2B visas issued in 2019 went to Mexican laborers. (H-2A visas for temporary agriculture workers are exempted from the suspension.)

The Trump administration is putting a hold on the exchange visitor program, covered by J-1 and J-2 visas, which brings over 300,000 people from 200 countries to the U.S. each year. The State Department says the program’s goal is to promote mutual understanding between Americans and people of other countries, and it includes workers from au pairs and camp counselors to interns, teachers, and academics.

Trump also extended an April ban on green card applicants from outside the U.S. until the end of 2019, which blocks roughly 20,000 applications for the permanent residency card each month.

The business community had lobbied hard against the new suspension of visas. Now that Trump has issued the executive order, it’s left to hope the bans are temporary.

“[I am] disappointed by today’s proclamation—we’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on Twitter. “Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today.”