Veena Iyer, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, meets with staff. Credit: Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

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Minnesota immigration experts say a move by the Trump administration to restrict temporary employment visas is unlikely to help workers who have lost jobs due to the pandemic, will hurt the economy — and serves mostly to further the president’s broad anti-immigration agenda.

Trump signed an order Monday putting a freeze on most visas used for employment-based immigration, such as H-1B, H4, L visas, and some J and H-2B visas. He ordered a 60-day freeze on some categories of family and employee-based immigration in April. The new action continues that policy through the end of the year and expands on it.

Veena Iyer, the executive director of the Immigrantion Law Center of Minnesota, said the freeze will hurt American businesses at a time when the economy is already struggling.

“A number of our Fortune 500 companies here rely on those workers,” Iyer said, “and the reason for that is there simply aren’t enough U.S. citizen workers who have the training to do those jobs.”

Sandra Feist, an immigration lawyer for Grell Feist PLC and a DFL candidate for the state House of Representatives, is working with six Chinese or Spanish language teachers employed by a Minnesota school district who are currently stuck abroad. The school district is sponsoring the teachers through the H-1B visa, but their applications are now at a halt.

“They are using the pandemic as an excuse to achieve their anti-immigrant agenda, Feist said. “They cannot use the pandemic, which they’ve underplayed in every other way.”

Feist said she has received many calls and emails from worried clients, despite some not being affected by the visa freeze. However, the Trump administration is already achieving what Feist says is its intended effect: Companies may start to reconsider bringing immigrant employees to the United States, and immigrant employees may turn down opportunities here.

One client frantically texted Feist to find out if the freeze will affect his visa application. He’s an executive from Ireland working at a pharmaceutical company, but his visa application will not be affected.

“It sure made him question his place in the United States, where he’s playing a lead role in finding a vaccine for COVID-19,” Feist said. “Is he really the type of person we want to make feel unwelcome right now?”

John Medeiros, an immigration lawyer at Nilan Johnson Lewis, said the freeze will affect employers in Minnesota who rely on the H-1B program to diversify their talent and remain industry leaders — especially as they approach the start of the new fiscal year in October, when employees approved for H-1B visas can begin working.

”These are people that are treating COVID-19 patients. These are the people programming your e-commerce so you can buy things online so you don’t have to go to a store. These are people that are keeping the economy going,” Medeiros said.

Medeiros raised concerns that Trump’s proclamation imposed further restrictions on medical workers. Immigrants working in medical care are exempt only if they are caring for individuals who have contracted COVID-19 and are hospitalized.

“You have a facility like Mayo Clinic who can’t even get an exception unless the doctor is treating COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized,” Medeiros said. “That’s how narrow this is.”

Marcus Jarvis from Marcus-Jarvis Law Limited said about a quarter of his clients will be affected by the recent proclamation. 

“The idea is to secure more jobs for U.S. nationals, but sometimes companies go and hire people from abroad because they’re highly skilled,” Jarvis said. “I’m not sure if by putting a ban, it’s going to essentially help potential U.S. employees secure those jobs.”

While he’s doubtful that the proclamation will boost the economy, Jarvis is still fielding concerns from clients who fear the freeze on their visa applications — especially for those who are currently separated from their families.

Like Jarvis, Marc Prokosch from Prokosch Law LLC is addressing concerns from clients who are trying to sponsor family members. One of Prokosch’s clients is a woman living in the United States legally with her children and using public services. The client is trying to sponsor her husband to come here and work, so that the family can get off of the welfare system.

“This administration has always been attempting to limit immigration of all kinds,” Prokosch said. “Now, they have simply found an excuse to put their anti-immigrant plans in action — and that’s the pandemic.”

While Trump does not have the authority to impose immigration restrictions on employees already authorized to live and work in the United States, Medeiros raised further concerns about involving the Department of Labor in developing policies beyond the proclamation.

“If we look at the language that is not in the proclamation, that’s going to be the next rollout,” Medeiros said.

According to the proclamation, the Department of Labor will consult with the Department of Homeland Security to consider regulations to curb the risk “of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery.”

Medeiros predicted the two departments may come up with ways to further restrict companies from sponsoring employees through the H-1B process. For example, Medeiros said the administration could require companies to undergo a process called labor certification, proving they can’t fill a position with an American worker before considering a candidate who would require a temporary employment visa. 

This move could nullify years of work companies have put in to recruit immigrant workers for vacant positions, Medeiros said.

Citing the border wall as an example, Medeiros said the Trump administration is facing a lot of resistance on its immigration policies. “What they’re realizing is, if we can’t succeed on illegal immigration then we might as well go after legal, he said.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.