Pa. business, immigration advocates caution against Trump work visa order

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: Surrounded by members of law enforcement, U.S. President Donald Trump holds up an executive order he signed on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities” during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House June 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump signed an executive order on police reform amid the growing calls after the death of George Floyd. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Pennsylvania will be one of the states most impacted by a new Trump administration order severely restricting work visas for immigrants, with advocates warning the move fixes none of the country’s immigration issues. 

The Keystone State could lose out on hundreds or thousands of new guest workers through the H-2B visa program alone.  

“Missing in this order is anything that reforms the problematic guestworker programs. International workers experience abusive recruitment processes in which they are often charged exorbitant amounts of money,” Justice at Work, an organization that provides free legal aid to immigrants across Pennsylvania, said in a joint statement with other immigration advocacy groups. 

President Donald Trump’s June 22 proclamation expanded on his 60-day “temporary pause” of new immigrant visas to last through the end of 2020. Trump argues the measures are necessary to protect American workers as the United States begins to reopen its economy as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold.

A number of key visas will be suspended or limited. These include H-1B visas, for short term work, H-2B visas, for seasonal work, “cultural exchange” J visas and L visas, used for companies to transfer international employees into America. The restrictions will not apply to those already in the United States, and exemptions are made for agricultural workers and workers deemed essential to the nation’s food supply chain, among others. 

Nationwide, there were over 18,500 workers in the United States under the H-2B visa not working on the food supply chain in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2020 alone, according to the Labor Department.

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And in fiscal year 2019, Pennsylvania had the fifth-most non-agricultural workers under H-2B visas — 5,006 —out of all 50 states. Landscaping and groundskeeping, forest conservation work, maids and housekeeping, construction laborers, cooks and waiters are some of the top occupations for individuals under this program, according to the Office of Foreign Labor Certification.

Trump said at this time, the entry of “certain aliens as immigrants and nonimmigrants would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” and warned against the harms caused by an “excess labor supply.”

“In the administration of our nation’s immigration system, we must remain mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in the current extraordinary environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor,” Trump said in his proclamation.

Art Read, the general counsel at Justice at Work, an organization that provides free legal aid to immigrants across Pennsylvania, said the bulk of the demand for work under the H-2B visa is between March and October. 

Since most of those workers are likely already in the country, Read said the immediate impact of this proclamation on Pennsylvanians is “relatively insignificant” — but Justice at Work believes Trump’s actions don’t solve any problems. 

“This order does not indicate what steps the administration will take to address workers that have already incurred significant expenses in pursuing guest worker visas,” the Justice at Work statement continued. “Applicants often take out loans or put property up for collateral in order to pay several thousand dollars in fees in order to secure a visa. This is a long process that with this announcement leaves them in the dark.”

Business advocates are also hoping the immigration restrictions imposed by Trump don’t go on any longer than necessary.

In a statement, Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry said the influential trade group “supports immigration reforms that strengthen the legal immigration system, improve our international competitiveness and workforce; and while we’re not qualified to judge this action from a health perspective, we urge that any immigration restriction deemed necessary to address the pandemic would be temporary.”

The proclamation comes as nationwide unemployment has soared to 13.3 percent in May and over 40 million people have filed jobless claims.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are spiking in states across the country — though all of Pennsylvania will enter Gov. Tom Wolf’s least-restrictive “green” phase of reopening in the coming weeks. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized Pennsylvania’s success in containing the spread of COVID-19. 

Immigration advocates worry Trump is using the pandemic to implement a broader agenda of limiting immigration. Trump has vowed to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, Trump has set the “lowest annual refugee ceiling since the creation of the U.S. refugee resettlement program in 1980.” The program let in just over 22,000 refugees in fiscal year 2018 — down from over 53,000 the year before.

“Instead of nativist and xenophobic bans, we need protections for all workers now,” Justice at Work said in its joint statement.

Jordan Wolman is a summer intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.