Sometimes what you are looking for is right in front of you. In this case, it is the American worker — not a foreign guest worker.
On June 22, President Trump signed an executive order suspending several temporary foreign guest worker programs in an effort to create economic opportunities for displaced Americans who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the president’s clearly stated intentions, the order received immediate critical scrutiny. Many argued it would reduce skilled workers, since Americans do not offer the same skill sets as those abroad. This could not be farther from the truth — the truth is that America offers a robust work force that should be prioritized during an unprecedented economic crisis, and the president’s order could not have come at a better time.
The president’s executive order simply prioritizes millions of unemployed Americans who offer the same, if not arguably better, skillsets than workers abroad. The proclamation suspends several foreign visas categories — including the H1-B, H2-B, J, and L visas — and range from high skilled positions in the tech industry to lower skilled positions in the hospitality industry. The notion that businesses cannot find Americans who can fill in for these positions is comical.
According to the White House, between February and April of 2020, more than 17 million jobs were lost in industries in which employers are seeking to fill positions tied to H-2B nonimmigrant visas. During this same period, more than 20 million American workers lost their jobs in key industries where employers are currently requesting H-1B and L workers to fill positions. It would be absurd to continue to import these workers with millions of Americans reeling from prolonged unemployment.
At the same time, only about a third of Americans with college degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields (STEM) — fields in which H1-B, J, and L visa holders are typically employed — hold STEM jobs. This means that there are millions of untapped American workers whose skills were being neglected even before the COVID-19 crisis. The idea of underutilized American labor is further backed up by academia. In testimony before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee, Rutgers University Professor Hal Salzman said “the U.S. educates an ample supply of qualified STEM workers, [but] we see the continued expansion of policies that shift work to offshore labor,” or in this case, imported workers.
By providing the impetus for employers to tap into a qualified domestic workforce, the proclamation will also improve economic conditions for the American worker. The influx of foreign labor, largely via the suspended visa programs, has stagnated and depressed wages for Americans for decades.
The damage to American workers has not been limited to those in the STEM fields. A Pew Research study finds that for most workers, wages, in real terms, remain exactly where they were in 1974. That is 46 years without a raise. While there are other contributing variables to this trend, it is no coincidence that the decades-long stagnation of American wages began with the onset of mass immigration following the 1965 bill. In 1970, 4.7 percent of the nation’s population was foreign-born; today it has tripled to 13.6 percent. At a time when many Americans are furloughed or have received wage reductions, it would be irresponsible to go on adding more foreign workers to the labor force.
Foreign labor, especially during a global pandemic, brings economic consequences —and this idea is far from being fringe. Americans have made clear that competition from foreign labor at a time of record unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic warrants immigration restrictions. Curtailing immigration and guest worker admissions is supported by 79 percent of the American public and cuts across all party, ideological, and demographic lines. In other recent polling, strong majorities of voters in ten battleground states agreed that “limiting admission of new immigrants and guest workers will improve the chances of laid-off American workers being rehired.”
If both the president of the United States and the American public believed that this order would bring negative economic effects to the country, they wouldn’t support it. It is that simple. The corporate business lobby has painted a distorted image that only further reinforces their greed and self-interest. Americans know they boast the skills to replace most foreign guest labor and are hungry for better economic opportunities during an unprecedented economic crisis that shows no sign of abating soon.
The president’s order remains in effect until the end of the calendar year and during this time the country will have the opportunity to reassess these massively abused visa programs. They must be restructured so that they do not continue to undermine American workers even when things return to normal. The length of the reform process is unknown, but what is known—as seen through data, testimony, and polling-— is that it is always the best time to hire American.
Matthew Tragesser is a communications specialist at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).