President Trump’s economic agenda has always been marked by a contradiction. He wants America to be the world’s high-tech business hub, but then he closes off the human talent essential to stay globally competitive. That’s the import of his order Monday restricting legal work visas across the economy.
The order is a pander to the restrictionist right that claims to oppose illegal immigration but really wants to stop all immigration. “American workers compete against foreign nationals for jobs in every sector of our economy, including against millions of aliens who enter the United States to perform temporary work,” the order says.
The order cites 17 million jobs lost in industries that use workers tied to H-2B [seasonal] nonimmigrant visas and more than 20 million in industries requesting H-1B and L [high-skilled] workers. But this double counts lost jobs and ignores that the labor market is highly complex and segmented.
The Labor Department reported 21 million jobless Americans (including foreign nationals) in May, a 15.2 million increase since February. While enormous, this is less than the order suggests. Many businesses use different visas to fill different positions. Contractors use H-1Bs for engineers and H-2Bs for construction workers.
As the National Foundation for American Policy recently noted, the vast majority of H-1Bs—which are capped at 85,000 a year—are for computer programming. The unemployment rate for these occupations was 2.5% in May compared to 13.3% for the entire economy. The Labor Department’s JOLTS survey found 122,000 information industry job openings in April, slightly more than the year before.
In 2019 Google applied for about 6,000 H-1B visas, Apple for 3,500 and Oracle for 1,900. American tech giants would fill positions with qualified Americans if they could find them. Moderna, the biotech startup pioneering a Covid vaccine, applied for 20 visas in 2019. The Trump order exempts health-care workers who treat hospitalized Covid patients or who do “medical research at United States facilities” to combat Covid-19. What about cancer researchers?