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US suspends several work visa programmes, including H-1B

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new executive order restricts the entry of immigrants and certain non-immigrants into the US until at least the end of 2020
  • The Optional Practical Training (OPT) has not been affected, but the H1-B visa class as well as some categories of the J visa have been identified as programmes that will be suspended under the new restrictions

US President Donald Trump has suspended a number of non-immigrant visa programmes until the end of 2020, citing the high unemployment caused by COVID-19 as the basis for the policy. The suspension may be extended into 2021 depending on the state of the US economy.

For educators, agents, and students, these are the implications of the presidential proclamation issued on 22 June:

  • The executive order suspends entry to the US for a number of non-immigrant work visa programmes for foreign nationals, including the H-1B programme – a key post-study employment route for foreign graduates;
  • It also suspends certain J visa routes for internships, trainees, teachers, camp counsellors, au pairs, and summer work travel programmes;
  • The H-4 visa programme is included in the ban, meaning that students’ dependent spouses will no longer be permitted to enter the US in 2020;
  • The executive order, however, does not affect international students, professors, and researchers on J visas.

There were concerns that the US administration would go even further in limiting visa programmes for foreign students and graduates this year. And in that respect, there are two important bright spots for foreign graduates in the US.

  • The 22 June order does not affect international students enrolled in the OPT (Optional Practical Training) programme, which means that international students on F visas may continue to stay and work in the US after graduation;
  • Nor does the proclamation apply to students and graduates already in the US and with valid visas from any of the affected programmes – they can remain in the US for the duration of their visas.

Detrimental to US economic recovery?

President Trump’s proclamation explains that the ban on certain classes of immigrants, students, and workers is meant to remove the “threat” posed by them. The president states:

“[The Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Homeland Security] reviewed non-immigrant programmes and found that the present admission of workers within several non-immigrant visa categories also [ed: in addition to lawful immigrants] poses a risk of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery.”

“The entry of additional workers through the H-1B, H-2B, J, and L non-immigrant visa programmes, therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“I have determined that the entry, through December 31, 2020, of certain aliens as immigrants and non-immigrants would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

OPT spared for now

The exclusion of OPT from the executive order was met with considerable relief from the higher education sector, which, with employers and some politicians, had been lobbying for weeks to keep the programme intact for international students. One university leader told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “curbing OPT would have been ‘an existential threat to higher ed’” given the programme’s popularity among international students.

Given that prospective international students have a much broader range of attractive destinations to choose from than they have in the past – and that Canada and Australia in particular have surged in popularity in large part because of welcoming work and immigration policies – OPT is a major, and increasingly necessary, competitive advantage for American colleges. In fact, participation in the programme has surged in the past several years.

If OPT being excluded from the order is a welcome, and even surprising, turn of events (it had come under intense scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security even before COVID-19), the inclusion of the H-1B visa category is troubling for US educators. Speaking with Inside Higher Ed, Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations for the American Council on Education said that her members are “concerned that [the ban on the issuance of H-1B visas] is going to impact the hiring of faculty especially in [STEM] fields.”

Ms Spreitzer also noted the potential for the ban in general to cause for confusion for international students: “While we’re really happy that they didn’t include OPT, if you’re an international student, you’re going to be like, is my visa covered under this? Should I be worried?”

Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director for public policy at NAFSA, added that because of the current US administration’s policies, students and talented immigrant workers may “take their talent elsewhere.”

Timing coincides with election campaigning

Overall, the sweeping new restrictions on immigrants and non-immigrants in the US are seen by some as politically motivated – “a victory for immigration hardliners,” whose support President Trump needs in advance of the November election.

Conservative groups pushing for an immigration clampdown had been notably unimpressed with the president’s previous proclamation delivered in April, which had suspended the issuance of Green Cards for a period of 60 days; the new proclamation extending and expanding that restriction to non-immigrants has been more positively received by that faction of the voting base. These political overtones have led to speculation that the current suspension of some visa programmes could represent the outlines of a more restrictive immigration policy in the US.

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