Professors Question Call for Guest Worker Visa Suspensions

Republican senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Charles E. Grassley and Josh Hawley call for a suspension of multiple categories of guest and specialty work visas in a May 7 letter to President Donald Trump.

The senators argue that suspending specialty occupation (H1-B), non-agricultural seasonal worker (H-2B) and others visas for 60 days would reduce the number of immigrant workers competing with American workers for jobs. They also call for reauthorizations.

But an immigration and an economics expert at Suffolk University say that cutting off these foreign workers is impractical.

“Many H-1B workers are computer programmers and scientists, and if they cannot come to the U.S., then employers will simply outsource work to them overseas in places like India and China,” says Suffolk Economics Professor Jonathan Haughton. “Gradually, scientific and technical work will be centered outside the country, and the dynamism of the U.S. tech sector will be compromised.”

And Immigration Law Professor Ragini Shah argues that temporary executive orders have a much longer shelf-life than advertised. President Trump’s 2017 travel ban, for example, originally was slated to last 180 days but is now in its third year. “In the case of this 60-day suspension of work-related visas, the senators are potentially removing entire visa categories created by Congress to fill a gap in our economy. It is a strange thing to have members of Congress asking for the executive to make an end run around them in this way.”

Haughton points to a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found “a low degree of substitutability between H1-B and native workers.” In other words, there aren’t enough Americans with qualifications in areas like coding, biotechnology and chemistry, for example, to slide into open positions.

There’s also not likely to be a rush of Americans seeking low-wage jobs presently filled by guest workers, he argues. “In the absence of H2-B (non-agricultural) seasonal workers, employers are more likely to turn to undocumented workers,” Haughton says.

The senators’ letter also calls for a suspension of the optional practical training (OPT) program, which allows full-time international students who have an employer to sponsor them and who receive the government’s sign off to stay in the U.S. for a year after they graduate.

International students often come to study in the U.S. on the tacit understanding that they may be able to get work experience in the U.S. afterwards, says Haughton. “If this understanding is compromised, then U.S. universities will have more difficulty attracting international students, an important source of talent and revenue that has, until now, helped maintain the country’s intellectual and scientific leadership. Measures aimed at creating illusory short-term benefits are short-sighted and ultimately do damage to the economy.”

“An element of overkill”

Generally, international students who have a special set of skills not otherwise available to the employer get hired under Optional Practical Training, and instead of scaring off such people who help the economy, the U.S. ought to improve America’s STEM education, so there are more Americans prepared for high-paying jobs, says Shah.

There’s also an element of overkill here, Shah contends. “The U.S. consulates that process and issue visas for international students and workers, among others, are not providing those services due to the pandemic. Therefore, we effectively have a suspension of visa processing for everyone who is covered by the senators’ proposal.”

Shah says the government could do a better job of ensuring that companies are seeking out highly skilled Americans before approving the hiring of a foreign worker on an H1-B visa. The H1-B system now relies on the companies to make a good-faith effort, without significant oversight.

Because of the number of jobs impacted “it’s not going to make a slight dent in our unemployment problem. It will actually make the problem worse as certain sectors lose the highly skilled talent they need to succeed,” says Shah.


Michael Fisch
Office of Public Affairs

Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs