President Donald Trump has temporarily halted the H-1B visa program, cutting off a critical source of high-skilled foreign labor for tech companies.
An executive order signed by the president on Monday also restricts H-2B visas for seasonal employees, L-1 visas for corporate executives, and J-1 visas for scholars and exchange programs. The measure takes effect Wednesday and lasts through Dec. 31.
Admitting workers to the country within the targeted visa categories “poses a risk of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery” from the coronavirus-related shutdown of the economy, Trump said in the order.
Administration officials estimated the move would “protect” more than 500,000 jobs but as the Los Angeles Times reports, neither Trump nor senior officials “provided much evidence to back the claim that immigrants have taken jobs from Americans out of work in those fields because of the virus. The latest measure would mostly target ‘nonimmigrant’ visa categories.”
“The pandemic is just a pretext,” said Doug Rand, a former Obama administration official who is a co-founder of Boundless Immigration.
Based on fiscal 2019 data, the proposed measure — if kept in place for a year — could affect more than 550,000 potential immigrant workers, according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the nonpartisan American Immigration Council.
H-1B visas allow companies to hire workers with specialized skills that the American labor force cannot provide. In recent years, about three-quarters of the annual supply of 85,000 H-1B visas have gone to workers in the technology industry.
Linda Moore, chief executive of the lobbying group TechNet, warned Trump’s move would be counter-productive, saying. “This will slow innovation and undermine the work the technology industry is doing to help our country recover from unprecedented events,” she said in a statement.
Tech executives and investors voiced similar concerns, with Anshu Sharma, CEO of startup Skyflow, tweeting, “This visa ban is morally wrong and economically stupid.”
“Whether his administration realizes it or not, they creating a significant handicap for U.S. innovation,” said Stonly Baptiste, co-founder of technology investment fund Urban.us.