President Trump signed an executive order Monday suspending entry to the U.S. by foreign nationals through a number of nonimmigrant work visa programs, including the H-1B program for skilled workers, which many colleges use to hire faculty and postdoctoral scholars.
The order, which extends through Dec. 31, also suspends certain subcategories of J-exchange visitor visas by denying entry to those wanting to participate in internship, trainee, teacher, camp counselor, au pair and summer work travel programs. It does not affect visa holders coming to the U.S. as college students, professors and research scholars through the same program.
Significantly for higher education, Trump’s order does not affect the optional practical training program, which permits international students to work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduating while staying on their F student visas. The decision not to impose new restrictions on the OPT program at this time came as a relief for higher education organizations and administrators who have joined with business groups in strongly advocating for keeping the program in place.
Still, advocates for higher education said they continue to worry about possible changes to OPT through the regulatory process. They say the suspension of the H-1B visas in particular will harm their ability to recruit international talent.
Other visa categories that will be suspended under Monday's executive order are the H-4 program, a category for dependent spouses; H-2B visas, a category for lower-skilled, nonagricultural workers; and L visas, a category for intra-company transfers. The administration is also extending until the end of the year an existing ban on new green card holders entering the country.
Senior Trump administration officials said in a background briefing Monday that the combined measures will free 525,000 jobs for Americans during a time of economic crisis. The proclamation asserts that "the entry of additional workers through the H-1B, H-2B, J, and L non-immigrant visa programs … presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak."
Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration practice at Cornell University, said, "The proclamation fails to understand that many nonimmigrant workers, especially high-skilled foreign workers, help grow the economy."
Yale-Loehr said the suspensions of H-1B visas could have an impact on university hiring, “probably not so much in quantity as in quality.”
"It'll affect H-1Bs who are outside the United States now who will not be able to come in to teach and work for a university. And while universities may not have a lot of those people, they may be very important. Maybe a new professor, for example, that they have recruited heavily but will not be able to come to the United States to start teaching."
Craig Lindwarm, vice president for governmental affairs at the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities, said the association "is greatly concerned that the hold on H-1B visas will substantially harm the ability of public universities to attract and retain top talent from around the world to educate and research."
Sarah Spreitzer, the director of government relations for the American Council on Education, said many institutions use the H-1B program to hire faculty in high-need STEM fields such as engineering and computer science. "We are concerned that this is going to impact the hiring of faculty especially in these important fields," she said.
Spreitzer also said the immigration actions may be confusing to international students.
“While we’re really happy that they didn’t include OPT, if you’re an international student, you're going to be like, is my visa covered under this? Should I be worried?”
H-1B visas are very important to many international students who use the visa category as a pathway to stay and work in the U.S. Demand for H-1B visas regularly outstrips supply; there were more than 200,000 applicants for 85,000 available spots last year (Congress has set a cap on the number of H-1Bs available, although universities are among a small group of employers that are exempt from that cap.)
Senior Trump administration officials said in the background briefing that the administration plans to replace the lottery through which H-1B visas are awarded in favor of granting the visas to the 85,000 applicants with the highest salary offers. Whether international students applying for H-1Bs would benefit over all from a transition to what Trump administration officials described as a more merit-based system for awarding H-1Bs is an open question, though it could conceivably be a minus for students applying without an advanced degree or in less lucrative occupations -- and a plus for holders of advanced degrees applying for positions in high-wage fields.