With High Unemployment, Some Wonder If Nonimmigrant Visa Programs Will Be Necessary This Summer

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/05/01/with-high-unemployment-some-wonder-if-nonimmigrant-visa-programs-will-be-necessary-this-summer/

When President Donald Trump said he would be temporarily halting immigration to the United States recently, he did not mean temporary non-immigrant visas.

Ultimately, the president’s executive order will block the issuing of about 52,000 green cards over a two-month period, according to the Migration Policy Institute. However, because nearly 27 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past five weeks, some say the president did not go far enough. They say this summer will not be an appropriate time to bring foreign workers into the country, including Massachusetts.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 80,153 unemployment claims in Massachusetts as of the week ending on Saturday, April 18. That means that over a five-week period, the state government received 651,457 unemployment claims.

Typically, each summer the Bay State adds to its labor force from outside of the country.Programs like the J-1 visa and H-2B visa are popular on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and in the Berkshires.

This year, the federal government issued 101,000 H-2B visas nationwide – about 19 percent more than the 84,627 issued in 2016, Barack Obama’s last year as president. About 80 percent of these workers come from Mexico.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 40 percent of H-2B jobs are landscapers or groundskeepers. Most of the rest are forestry workers, maids and housekeepers, meat or fish processors, construction laborers, and restaurant employees.

As for the J-1 visa, there is no set limit on how many can be issued in any given year, but in 2018 the summer work travel portion of the program had 6,588 participants in Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Department of State’s web site.

Unlike the H-2B visa, which is considered a nonagricultural work visa, the J-1 is considered a cultural exchange program. It is primarily used by students. According to the Irish travel agency Go4less, these people tend to work in resorts and hotels, as well as bars and restaurants. Additionally, on Cape Cod, Stop & Shop uses J-1 workers in the summer. The program is currently suspended for 60 days until Tuesday, May 12, but no further announcements have been made.

Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, told New Boston Post that the current situation shows how unnecessary these programs are to the country.

Vaughan said it would be “crazy to continue” these kinds of programs.

“A large share of the exchange worker visas are for the summer season, which is perfect timing for students and people who can’t go back to work yet,” Vaughan said in an email message. “Besides, most of the employers are in the tourism industry, and it’s not at all clear if those establishments will be able to operate in the same way this summer. 

“How many lifeguards and bartenders and housekeepers will really be needed?” she added. “However many that is, the jobs should go to American workers first. Every year they put out the narrative that the Cape will shut down without these visa workers; that sounds especially insincere now, but it hasn’t stopped them from lobbying for the visas.”

Matt O’Brien, the director of research at the immigration-restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform, says issuing visas for foreign workers this summer doesn’t make sense.

O’Brien argues that there will likely be fewer jobs available to the native population this summer, so it would not be fair to bring in foreign workers to compete with them for these jobs.

“At present, our nation’s interest in introducing foreign nationals to American culture through the J-1 program should be entirely subordinate to the overriding goal of protecting American’s from COVID-19,” O’Brien said in an email message. “We do not need to import foreign seasonal workers because there are currently millions of Americans who are out of work and could be hired to fill seasonal positions.”

O’Brien also said he is concerned about foreign nationals coming into the country and spreading coronavirus. China, ruled by a government many suspect is not being forthright about the country’s coronavirus cases, has people who use the J-1 visa program.

“Americans are being asked to self-quarantine in order to avoid spreading COVID-19,” O’Brien said. “As such, it is woefully unclear how importing thousands of foreign workers, who might also be infected with COVID-19, might help the United States re-open for business and move beyond a nationwide quarantine.”

Advocates of these nonimmigrant visa programs say that they are necessary to fill jobs and avoid labor shortages that would otherwise hurt the domestic workforce.

One staunch supporter of these programs is U.S. Representative Bill Keating, a Democrat from Massachusetts’s Ninth Congressional District, which includes the South Shore and Cape Cod. He spoke to New Boston Post on March 14 at an event in Plymouth about his support for the H-2B visa program.

“There’s jobs for people here,” Keating said at the time. “They come, work for a couple of months then go home. They’re important for our local workers too because if there’s not a full complement of workers at a restaurant, which has happened, they’ll close down their hours. The people who are here working and anticipating those jobs are hurt by that. When it comes to the seasonal issue, I don’t think we see that criticism here, and it’s an important distinction to make.”

The interview took place almost seven weeks ago, when the coronavirus emergency was just beginning. A spokesman for Keating could not be reached for comment this past week.

The federal government could amend its stance on low-skill nonimmigrant visa programs in the coming weeks.

If the government stays with past policy, however, will Cape Cod businesses still want to hire foreign workers?

Wendy Northcross, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, told New Boston Post that it’s unclear.

She also maintains that businesses have hired and will hire as many Americans as possible to fill their needs.

“The demand for staffing levels is still to be determined,” Northcross said in an email message. “Much will depend on whether our primarily small business community is able to open due to government mandates, or their lack of cash reserves or resources. And then seasonality adjustments are going to be determined by customer demand – if they can travel or not. No way to tell at this point in time. Cape Cod businesses have always preferred to hire a Cape Codder, and I don’t see that changing in any way this year.”