SINGAPORE: On Jun 22, President Donald Trump issued an executive order halting the issuance of foreign work visas until the end of 2020. These include the H-1B visas companies use to hire highly skilled workers in certain fields and the L-1 visas used for intra-company transfers.
Trump said the measure was intended to protect American jobs at a time of record high unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute predicts that nearly 170,000 foreign workers and their families will be affected by the measure.
Trump’s new policy, especially on H-1B visas, represents an existential threat to the tech industry and elicited strong condemnation from Silicon Valley moguls.
Google’s Sundar Pichai tweeted his “disappointment” at the move and promised to “stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all”.
Apple’s Tim Cook argued that there could be “no new prosperity” without immigrants and the “hope in the enduring promise of the American Dream”.
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TUSSLE OVER IMMIGRATION
The current dispute over work visas is not Silicon Valley’s first confrontation with the Trump administration over immigration. It is merely the latest and arguably highest-stake fight yet between the two sides.
Often overlooked in Trump’s campaign crusade against illegal immigration in 2016 was his pledge to crack down on legal immigration as well – something that made many in Silicon Valley very nervous.
A week into Trump’s presidency, the administration issued an executive order barring travellers and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya – from entering the US for 90 days, ostensibly to protect the US from foreign terrorism.
Tech companies publicly rebuked the administration, backed protests, and filed lawsuits against a policy viewed as a threat to their industry. Such overt political activism was unprecedented for a sector previously viewed as scrupulous in its cultivation of bipartisan support.
Silicon Valley’s activism, however, had to be mobilised again to defend an Obama-era programme, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA grants 700,000 so-called Dreamers – qualified individuals who were brought to the US as children – temporary legal status and shields them from deportation.
In 2017, nearly 400 tech CEOs signed a letter lobbying the administration and Congress to preserve DACA for the flourishing of the sector.
While the Supreme Court upheld a modified version of Trump’s “Muslim travel ban”, it recently blocked the administration’s attempt to dismantle DACA on Jun 18, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts.
POPULISM AND THE PANDEMIC
The administration’s move to halt work visas followed quickly on the heels of its setback in the Supreme Court’s DACA ruling.
While Trump mooted replacing America’s “outdated and randomised” immigration system with one “based on merit” and welcoming “those who follow the rules, contribute to our economy, support themselves financially, and uphold our values” in his 2020 State of the Union Address, restricting immigration has been the cornerstone of this administration.
Back then in February, however, the president could afford to appear open and generous.
He was luxuriating in his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial, record stock market gains, rising incomes and historic low rates of unemployment for Americans. There was also the prospect of Democrats nominating a Democratic Socialist as their presidential nominee.
But that was before Death, Plague, Economic Collapse, and Racial Unrest stalked the land like the four Horsemen of the American Apocalypse.
The pandemic altered the president’s electoral calculus. With tanking polls numbers and a need to placate restless immigration hardliners, the visa directive is the result of Trump betting that more conservative policies will boost turnout among his base in November.
It also marks an important victory for Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Charles Grassley of Iowa, and Josh Hawley of Missouri, who have been extolling the economic virtues of restricting legal immigration in favour of American citizens.
Like the president, they are committed to maximising support among the party’s base – white voters uneasy about the scope and scale of the country’s socio-demographic changes.
In May, the populist quartet petitioned the president to suspend work visas, arguing that there was no reason why American job-seekers have to compete in such a limited job market.
Trump’s visa measures will have a disproportionate effect on Indian nationals which might complicate his re-election campaign.
Indian nationals comprise 72 per cent of about 388,000 H-1B visa holders and have the largest share of L-1 visas for company executives and L-2 visas for their families.
Indian Americans, many of whom have family who came to the US legally to study or work, are opposed to the new immigration measures. They are a growing and influential segment of voters, with 1.4 million Indian Americans expected to register and vote in November – approximately 13 per cent of 11 million Asian American voters.
President Trump has been working hard to curry favour with the Indian American community. Last September, he appeared at a “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston alongside the Indian prime minister. In February, he travelled to India to attend a “Namaste Trump” rally with over 100,000 fans at the world’s largest cricket stadium.
The Trump campaign has even produced an ad campaign targeted at Indian Americans touting the administration’s economic and education policies as well as the president’s close ties to Modi.
Some Indian Americans embrace Trump’s overtures as recognition of their community’s growing political clout and ambitions, while others are vociferously opposed to the president’s policies.
Over 80 per cent of Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the Trump campaign hopes to win them over in 2020.
They play an important role in the changing demographics and politics of states affected by immigration, battleground states like Arizona, Texas and North Carolina which Trump needs to carry in November.
AN ACT OF SELF-SABOTAGE
While President Trump likes to boast his policies put “America First”, the reality is that more often than not they are “Trump First”.
Notwithstanding President Trump’s claim that foreign workers pose “an unusual threat to the employment of American workers”, there is scant evidence that skilled immigrants displace citizens from jobs – especially in specialised fields such as IT and biomedicine, where there were pre-existing labour shortages even before the pandemic.
On the contrary, research indicates that temporary high-skilled workers boost native employment rates and wages, and benefit major urban centers.
Trump’s visa policy displays the triumph of political expediency over rational immigration policy. It’s a page of the president’s populist playbook: A simplistic but powerful appeal of putting American workers ahead of foreigners.
But the move threatens to undermine American soft power and leadership in the tech sector. America’s loss will be other countries’ gain – they will seek to attract both the companies and the skilled workers they rely on.
By his own admission, President Trump needs a sharp V-shaped economic recovery to boost his re-election prospects. But by seeking short-term political gain with his populist move, he threatens innovation, productivity, entrepreneurship, consumption, and job growth at a time when he needs it the most.
The irony for Trump is that he might have fatally sabotaged his own re-election.
Adrian Ang U-Jin is a Research Fellow in the United States Programme at the the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).