WASHINGTON — President Biden has quietly relaxed one of former President Trump’s signature immigration bans against foreign workers with skills that U.S. employers say they cannot find in the domestic labor market.
Many pro-immigration advocacy groups had urged Biden to abolish the ban on so-called guest workers as soon as he entered the White House. Instead, without fanfare, Biden waited almost three months and let the ban expire at the end of March as scheduled.
Politically, Biden’s approach avoided an open fight with his allies in organized labor, which has long opposed guest worker programs like the H-1B and, for lower-end seasonal help, the lesser-known H-2B. Unions contend that such visas allow companies to bring in foreign workers at lower wages and benefits than they would have to offer Americans.
But beyond the political calculations, letting the ban lapse also tacitly acknowledged another reality: Closing the door to foreign workers may ultimately hurt the national economy and undercut Biden’s goal of making the U.S. more competitive globally.
The vast majority of research studies have concluded that worker visas and other more open-door immigration policies have little or no negative effect on native-born workers or the economy. In fact, many economists believe the evidence shows that foreign workers on balance have a positive impact.
Not only is an aging American population producing fewer workers, but foreign workers also spend a high proportion of their earnings in the U.S., offset the negative demographic trends and help meet the need for particular kinds of skills.
Some guest workers have advanced technical, business or other skills. Others at the lower-paying end of the spectrum do work that employers say many native-born Americans don’t want to do, including jobs in agriculture, seafood processing, and service industries such as landscaping and care for the elderly.
Although critics challenge many of those points, employers say that during the last year of the pandemic, as travel restrictions further crimped the pipeline of foreign workers, many companies still struggled to fill such jobs despite a sharp rise in overall U.S. unemployment.
Last June, Trump blocked the entry of H-1B visa holders, many of them skilled tech workers, and tens of thousands of other foreign nationals working on temporary or seasonal basis, such as gardeners, summer camp staff and au pairs.
The ban, which exempted farmworkers, was based on coronavirus safety and preserving jobs for Americans as unemployment spiked.