Trump immigration restrictions expected to impact economy long after he leaves White House

Large tech companies like Google have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the H-1B Visa program in recent years. (Associated Press)
President Trump's four-year crusade against immigration has brought the numbers of foreign workers and other immigrants arriving on American shores to the lowest level in decades.
That pleases Trump's supporters, but it will almost certainly cost the nation dearly in the future, with slower employment growth, fewer startups, and a weaker overall economy, say economists, business leaders, and immigration analysts.
According to experts, his renewed urge to deny visas to foreign workers with special skills and expertise that U.S. companies need is one of Trump's most damaging anti-immigration efforts.
Two rules enacted this week, one by the Department of Labor and the other by the Department of Homeland Security, should make it significantly more difficult for technology companies - many in California and elsewhere on the West Coast - to hire overseas workers under what is known as the H-1B -Visa program.
Many economists say the rules will hurt the US and help its foreign competitors. Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, said he had started seeing recruiting billboards from Canadians in Silicon Valley.
Trump officials have attempted to define the latest H-1B rules as a coronavirus-triggered emergency to save American jobs by bypassing the public comment deadline to enforce some of the changes immediately.
"Immediate action is needed to protect against the risk that cheaper foreign labor can pose," Patrick Pizzella, deputy minister of labor, told reporters on Tuesday.
According to Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Institute for Migration Policy, the H1-B program, along with many other forms of legal immigration, has been in the administration's crosshairs since Trump took office.
"They didn't just make that up when the pandemic happened," said Pierce.
Net immigration to the US increased by 1.05 million from 2015 to 2016, but has fallen steadily since then. It fell to 595,348 between 2018 and 2019, according to an analysis of the Census Bureau data by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Due to the pandemic, the declines are likely to be even greater this year.
With the aging of the US-born population and the birth rate at historic lows, experts say this is a problem. Immigrants have helped strengthen the labor force, which is a key component of economic growth.
Studies have shown that immigrants tend to start new businesses at higher rates than locals and can help increase productivity with new ideas and fresh capital.
"Immigrants are by definition risk takers," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.
In contrast to Trump's portrayal of immigrants as poor and dependent on welfare programs, the majority of foreign-born adults in the past decade are from Asia, most with college and university degrees, Frey said.
With China and other countries increasingly challenging US leadership in areas such as artificial intelligence, telecommunications and health sciences, American firms and research laboratories fear that if Trump manages to squeeze the pipeline, it will be difficult to stay ahead.
Doug Rand, former assistant director of entrepreneurship under the Obama administration and founder of a technology company, said it may be too late.
"Based on the data, the US may never be # 1 again for global talent," he said.
While corporate giants like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft were among the biggest beneficiaries of the existing Visa program, smaller businesses and startups could be hurt more, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration expert at Cornell Law School.
The impact is likely to be felt beyond the roughly 85,000 H-1B visas now being issued to workers annually.
The new rules make it difficult both for foreign professionals to qualify for a visa and for employers to apply for one. The result could lead US firms to move more jobs overseas.
Many international students, especially from the fields of science and technology, see the H-1B as a way of making a career here after graduation.
The Trump administration has also tried to tighten restrictions on foreigners in U.S. graduate programs. Even before the pandemic, new international enrollments at US universities waned. Without an active H-1B program or other means to stay and work in the United States, even fewer could choose to study in the United States.
Trump's disdain for the H-1B program stems from his 2016 campaign when he blew it up as a job killer despite his own company using the program to bring in models.
California Democratic MP Zoe Lofgren admitted the H-1B program and the broader immigration system needed reform, but described Trump's recent moves as "really an election bumper sticker."
"The main concern of H-1B is that it may not be structured so that it will not harm American workers," Lofgren told The Times. "You had four years to do something useful about it."
Aside from concerns that too many H-1Bs have gone to Indian outsourcing companies, critics say the program is displacing American jobs and depressing wages. While studies have shown that this can happen when there is surplus labor in low skilled occupations, little evidence of such an impact in areas where highly skilled labor is required.
At the start of his tenure, Trump vowed to base immigration on merit and skills necessary for the good of the economy. But instead of finding a comprehensive solution, he targeted different parts of the American patchwork system.
In June, Trump ordered the new H-1B and some other work visas to be frozen by the end of the year. U.S. workers needed additional protection during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, a federal court in San Francisco partially blocked the order, but not before thousands of work visa holders were denied entry to the United States.
“A lot of people went thinking they'd be back in a week or two and they couldn't fulfill all of their commitments, their homes, their belongings, their lives,” said Susan Cohen, an immigration attorney with the Boston-based law firm Mintz . "There are many very sad stories."
The restraining order was one of several court rulings that prevented Trump from fully implementing his tough immigration measures through what the California judge last week described as unrestrained executive power resembling "wholly monarchical power."
With the release of new rules that make obtaining H-1B visas much more difficult, the administration is taking a different and possibly more effective approach that is meant to outlast Trump's presidency if he loses on November 3rd. A Biden administration would likely follow the law Trump officials evaded to reverse the rules. That would make it a lengthy process for Biden to handle Trump's 400+ executive measures to restrict immigration.
"That's her signature," Pierce said of the Trump administration's policymaking. "Throw as much noodles on the wall as you can and see what sticks."
The new labor rule, which sets higher wages employers must pay a foreign worker, comes into effect immediately. Analysts say wage rates are arbitrary and could be significantly higher than even comparable US workers.
The Homeland Security Ordinance restricts the definition of “specialty professions” that can be used for H-1B visas. And bypassing normal government procedures, the agency said the "tentative final" rule would go into effect in 60 days with no public comment period.
"They're trying to pull it off," Cohen said, adding the rules could be challenged in court.
Trump federal officials have already turned down many more H-1B visa applications based on a narrower interpretation of the types of jobs and employer services that can qualify.
Joe Biden, the former vice president and Democratic candidate, has not set out the details of his immigration plan but is expected to overturn many of Trump's orders if he is elected.
That's one of the reasons the Trump administration made the changes before the election, says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a think tank advocating restoring immigration to higher levels.
With "the possibility that Donald Trump will lose," he said, "regulations allow for longer-term changes that are much more difficult to overcome than executive orders and memos that could simply be withdrawn."
Anderson sees little economic justification for squeezing H-1B and other forms of legal immigration. In fact, maintaining the program would help the U.S. economy recover faster from the pandemic and spur growth in the future.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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