Trump Rolls Out a Misguided Attack on Skilled Immigration

Trump has promised to adopt a system that gives preference to skilled immigrants. He’s doing the exact opposite.

Trump Rolls Out a Misguided Attack on Skilled Immigration
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn after returning to the White House in Washington. (Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg View) -- In his campaign and since winning the presidency, Donald Trump has promised to adopt a system that gives preference to skilled immigrants. He’s doing the exact opposite. This represents not just a breach of a campaign promise and a trampling of long-standing American ideals, but a threat to a key engine of prosperity.

So far, most of Trump’s attacks have come against the H-1B program. The H-1B work visa allows skilled foreigners to work in the U.S. when sponsored by an employer. Although the visa is nominally about temporary work, in practice H-1B holders often end up applying for green cards and staying in the U.S. permanently. Thus, H-1B is the country’s most important engine of skilled immigration.

Trump’s administration has been attacking this program vigorously. Reason, a conservative website, has reported on the various ways Trump is shutting out smart foreigners. The administration is making it harder for H-1B holders to renew their visas -- even if they were approved once, getting the visa re-approved will be just as onerous. Through this and several other measures, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is placing an increasing burden on businesses that seek to employ the best and the brightest from overseas. These aren’t just cosmetic changes either. Reuters reports that the government has issued 45 percent more challenges to H-1B visa requests this year than in 2016.

Even worse, the administration is preparing to eliminate part of the Optional Practical Training program, which lets foreign students work in the U.S. while they complete their degrees. That program, implemented by the George W. Bush administration, has allowed U.S. universities to maintain their global dominance by recruiting top students from around the world. Since foreign students tend to pay full tuition, it also helps subsidize the educations of low-income native-born Americans. Ending the OPT program would be a heavy blow to U.S. universities, eroding the country’s technological dominance and making it harder for the native-born to get a reasonably priced high-quality education.

But the biggest blow against skilled immigration would come if the administration succeeds in passing the so-called Raise Act, short for Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy. Although the bill establishes a system that would award points and give preference to skilled immigrants -- a positive step -- what's being proposed is so restrictive that in practice, few applicants would pass muster. Much more importantly, the Raise Act would end most family reunification immigration -- the main way by which legal immigrants make it to the U.S. In the past decade, an increasingly large percent of legal immigration has been of the skilled variety:

Trump Rolls Out a Misguided Attack on Skilled Immigration

By cutting off what the Trump administration calls “chain migration,” the U.S. would be choking off its biggest source of skilled legal immigrants.

Trump’s moves will fall hardest on Asian immigrants, who tend to be of the high-skilled variety, and who now represent the largest group of new immigrants entering the U.S. The curbs on H-1B visas, the possible end of the OPT program, the ominous Raise Act, and the administration’s general anti-immigrant attitude have many Indian-Americans rethinking whether they want to stay in the country, and many Indians reconsidering whether it’s worth it to come in the first place.

This is bad news. Indian-Americans are generally recognized as the highest-skilled group in the U.S. The median income of Indian-American households is higher than that of any other group, and Indian-Americans may also be the most educated. Stopping the inflow of smart, high-earning Indians into the U.S. would be a gut punch to the high-technology industries that power the U.S. economy.

Without skilled immigrants, the biggest U.S. economic advantages -- top universities, concentrations of smart workers and high-value industries -- would all be undermined. Nor would cutting off skilled immigration benefit American workers -- studies generally show that these immigrants actually raise the wages of the native-born, by complementing their skills.

In other words, the Trump administration’s attack on skilled foreigners doesn’t just represent a reversal of the president’s campaign promises -- it poses a danger to the country as a whole.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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