Opinion

Pause Guest-worker Visas During a Pandemic

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Posted: Jun 11, 2020 12:01 AM
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Pause Guest-worker Visas During a Pandemic

Source: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

President Trump recently paused all permanent immigration to the United States -- but his administration is still welcoming in hundreds of thousands of temporary guest workers.

And these foreign laborers aren't just picking fruit or packing meat. Many are coming on H-1B "high-skilled" visas to take white-collar roles. Many others are students at U.S. universities. Even though their F-1 visas require them to return home within 60 days after graduation, they're staying and working because of a legal loophole known as the Optional Practical Training program.

It makes no sense to bring in these extra workers during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Over 40 million Americans have lost their jobs since the pandemic began. The last thing these citizens need is more competition from foreign workers. President Trump could help Americans recover their old jobs, or find new ones, by suspending guest-worker visas.

Corporations have imported cheap, white-collar workers on H-1B visas since Congress created the program three decades ago. Each year, for-profit companies can bring in 85,000 H-1B workers, and those foreigners can extend their visas for up to six years. Non-profit organizations, meanwhile, can bring in an unlimited number of H-1B workers. Currently, roughly 500,000 foreigners work in the United States on these visas.

Employers have long used H-1B visas to discriminate against qualified Americans. In some cases, they've actually laid-off Americans to free up positions for guest workers. That's because many of these foreigners are willing to take lower salaries. Roughly 80 percent of H-1B holders earn less than the average U.S. wage for their positions.

Often, they earn much, much less. In our nation's capital, tech companies pay H-1B software developers up to 36 percent less than American software developers, according to a new report from Ron Hira, a professor at Howard University.

The Optional Practical Training program -- created by George W. Bush and expanded by Barack Obama -- is just as detrimental to American workers. OPT allows foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities to stay and work in America for up to three years.  And foreigners can earn two-year extensions for completing additional STEM degrees.

Tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple exploit the OPT program for all it's worth. These companies can hire as many OPT participants as they want. And both OPT employees and their employers are exempt from payroll taxes. That exemption, which saves employers thousands of dollars per OPT hire, makes these foreigners more attractive to businesses than equally qualified Americans.

Given these perverse incentives, it's no surprise that the OPT program grew 400 percent between 2008 and 2016. Last year alone, over 220,000 foreign workers gained or extended their work authorizations through the program.

This massive influx of guest-workers has boxed many Americans out of jobs. Today, guest workers comprise two-thirds of all IT hires under 30. Meanwhile, one in three recent American graduates with computer science degrees couldn't land IT jobs, according to a recent National Center for Educational Statistics survey -- and that was before the pandemic hit.

Young women bear the brunt of this competition. The share of computer science workers who are women has actually fallen since the 1980s, in no small part due to the influx of millions of mostly male guest-workers. The lack of gender diversity is so pervasive that in some Silicon Valley circles, programmers are often dubbed "brogrammers.

Fortunately, some leaders in Washington are standing up for these mistreated Americans. Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Chuck Grassley recently urged President Trump to suspend the issuance of most guest-worker visas for one year.

In an April executive order, President Trump noted that pausing legal immigration would "protect already disadvantaged and unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs." He's absolutely right. Now, it's time to extend that logic to guest-workers. There's simply no reason to bring in additional laborers when so many Americans can't find jobs.


Ryan James Girdusky is a writer and commentator. He is author of the upcoming book They're Not Listening: How the Elites Created the Nationalist Populist Revolution.