Changing U.S. Immigration Rules Loaded With Economic Baggage

Here's how newly unveiled and promised visa changes could affect jobs and businesses
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Protesters demonstrate on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 30, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump spent his first week making good on even his most controversial campaign promises when it comes to immigration, leaving business leaders questioning what comes next and what it could mean for the U.S. economy. 

Last week, the new commander in chief suspended visa issuance in seven majority-Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days as visa vetting rules are reviewed. Trump's team is also drafting an executive order aimed at overhauling the work-visa programs, pushing companies to hire Americans first and giving priority to more highly paid foreign recruits. And there's more to come, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Monday. 

"You'll see both through executive action and through comprehensive legislative action a way to address immigration as a whole, and the visa program," Spicer said.

Below, we lay out some of America's most controversial and biggest entry programs, how their contours could be altered and how that could affect the economy.

1. Refugees

Refugees make up a relatively small but hotly contested portion of America's overall immigration. They fall under a capped program that is allocated by regional need. For 2016, the limit stood at 85,000, and former President Barack Obama had raised that number to 110,000 for the current fiscal year, which started in October. Even that would have been pretty small: For context, about 1 million people obtained permanent lawful residence in the U.S. in fiscal 2015. 


Changes and Impact: 
Trump's executive action stops refugee admission for four months as admission procedures undergo review. Even once the program is resumed, it will be limited to 50,000 people in fiscal 2017 unless Trump decides more entrants would "be in the national interest." Finally, Syrian refugee entrance has been halted altogether until Trump determines sufficient changes have been made to the program. 

Because they're such a small share of the population, refugees don't affect the broad labor market much. Still, some business leaders said Trump's move shows the administration is willing to take drastic immigration-related action, which stirs uncertainty. 

"No one knows what he is going to do," said Joshua Konowe, chief product officer at information technology company Canvas in Reston, Virginia. "If there is anything that investors and entrepreneurs hate, it's not having a framework with which they can rely on."  

2. Skilled-Employment Visas

Employment-based visas are an economically important non-immigrant category. Prominent non-immigrant employee categories include H-1B, which allows companies to bring over temporary workers in specialty occupations; L-1, which allows for inter-company employee transfers; and J-1, exchange visas that allow people to come here for medical and business training or to be professors and researchers. Fans say programs like H-1B help employers to fill jobs that native workers lack the skills to do. Critics say the program's wage rules aren't enforced and the visa category enables companies to undercut American jobs and pay. 

Changes and Impact: Employment-based temporary visa categories face an uncertain future under the new president. Trump has been alternately supportive and critical of the H-1B program. Even if he signs his administration's draft order, which urges hiring American workers first and giving priority to more highly paid applicants, it isn't obvious how much it would matter: Congress is also working on visa reform. What is clear is that skilled visa programs are in for a change.

While supporters laud the changes as needed protection for American workers, employers who depend on the program warn that it shouldn't be curbed. 

"At least 90 percent of the roles for which we are engaged require advanced degrees in quantitative subject areas such as mathematics, physics and computer science,'' said Deborah Rivera, founder and managing partner of The Succession Group, a search firm specializing in banking and finance. "One hundred percent of the those positions require strong coding skills, and as hard as we search, we rarely find Americans with the appropriate backgrounds." 

3. Student Visas 

F- and M-series cover students, as well as their spouses and children. F-series visas are for traditional students and M-series for vocational students.


Changes and Impact: Citizens of the seven countries affected by Trump's executive order made up about 1 percent of all student visa recipients in 2015. More than half of those hailed from Iran. While the Trump administration has not indicated it would more seriously curtail student visas, graduates looking to work in America after they finish their degrees could be impacted if the administration were to curb employment-related programs like H-1B. 

4. Business Travelers

Business travelers with B-series visas make up a large share of non-immigrant visa issuance. These cover the huge number of people who travel to the U.S. for temporary visits exclusively or partly for business reasons (B1 and B1/B2). They also include B1/B2 visas that are combined with Border Crossing Cards issued for multiple entries at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Changes and Impact: This is one of the places where Trump's temporary, country-specific ban could have a small impact, because citizens of the seven affected countries made up 55,534 of business travel visa recipients, and more than half of those, 27,854, came from Iran. That said, they account for less than 1 percent of the total, and the Trump administration has not signaled it is interested in more seriously curtailing temporary business travel.

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