Donald Trump has introduced sweeping immigration restrictions to help Americans hit by the economic impact of coronavirus, in a move that business leaders said could reduce US competitiveness.
The US president extended a ban on green card applications until the end of the year and suspended a range of “guest worker” visas that allow everyone from scientists and engineers to au pairs to work in the US.
“We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens,” Mr Trump said, in explaining the action.
The order came two months after Mr Trump unveiled an initial suspension on green cards — permanent residency — to respond to the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs as coronavirus ravaged the US economy. But the move was slammed by big business who said it would hurt the economy.
“Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses and other workers won’t help our country. It will hold us back,” said Tom Donohue, head of the US Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to extending the green card suspension, the executive order halts the issuance of H-1B visas used by technology companies and the H4 visas that allow the spouses of those visa holders to live, and sometimes work, in the US.
Chuck Robbins, the Cisco Systems chief executive who chairs the immigration committee of the Business Roundtable group, told the Financial Times ahead of the announcement that business leaders had adamantly explained to the administration why it would be damaging to the nation.
“We still have a talent shortage in the tech field,” Mr Robbins said. “This may be a Canadian Jobs Creation Act. You can go to Toronto and hire people there and work quite effectively. That is the risk we run if we start to eliminate these programmes.”
Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, criticised the decision, saying: “Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech.”
Mr Trump also halted L visas, which are used by companies to transfer employees to their US offices, and most types of J visas, used by au pairs. He also stopped the issuance of H-2B visas, given for used for non-agricultural seasonal workers.
Nancy McLernon, head of the Global Business Alliance, a lobby group that represents foreign companies in the US, said the restrictions would remove a “critical component of future economic growth”.
“When international companies invest here, they often send their brightest minds and most experienced executives,” said Ms McLernon. “These executives transfer world-class knowhow to our economy.”
Mr Trump said the action was needed because of the pandemic. “Under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak, certain non-immigrant visa programmes . . . pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” he said.
The president said the restrictions would apply until the end of 2020, but “may be continued as necessary” beyond that date. The measures do not affect people who are in the US or have already been issued one of the visas.
A US official said the restrictions would create employment opportunities for roughly 525,000 Americans, and was part of the “America First” recovery. The action came as the US unemployment rate has soared to 13.3 per cent because of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Edward Alden, an immigration expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr Trump was “killing the goose that laid the golden egg” as the US had long gained from attracting scientists and students from overseas.
“The Trump administration is more determined than ever to drive them away,” Mr Alden said. “This will have lasting negative impacts in the US ability to lead in innovation, and to stay ahead of China in the race to develop the technologies of the future.”
The official said Mr Trump wanted to reform the H-1B system. At present the US uses a lottery to award the 85,000 visas annually. Mr Trump wants to move to a merit-based system that would involve applicants being ranked according to the salary that they are offered for their job.
The move to further restrict immigration comes as Mr Trump revs up his re-election campaign. Four years ago he won the White House partly by stoking fear about illegal immigration from Mexico and other countries.
Political analysts expect Mr Trump to return to the issue of immigration again this year, particularly as he struggles against Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, in the polls.
Mr Biden leads Mr Trump by 9.5 points, according to an average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. Mr Trump relaunched his campaign with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday, but the event was attended by fewer than 7,000 supporters. The campaign had boasted earlier in the week that it had received interest from more than 1m Americans.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi