Trump relaxes some visa rules

Adds exemptions for some H-1B applicants

FOR FOREIGN CITIZENS who work in Massachusetts but found themselves stuck abroad due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, the State Department has offered a yellow light to come back.

The US Department of State said Wednesday that foreign nationals working in the US legally who were stranded overseas with suspended work visas can now return to the country to their same jobs, if certain conditions are met.

The shift comes two months after the Trump administration’s original order, which suspended the issuance of many new work visas through the end of 2020 and left it up to individual embassies to sort out exemptions to the travel restrictions on a piecemeal basis.

New hires for companies will still have to jump through extra hoops to obtain an exemption, assuming they can obtain highly sought after and limited visa appointments. But the new guidance allows people who had been previously employed here to return.

The updated guidance applies to individuals seeking to return to the US on H-1B visas, which are used by technology company employees and those with specialized knowledge, and L-1 visas, which apply to managers and high-level employees. Qualifying individuals can “resume ongoing employment” in “the same position with the same employer and visa classification,” according to the guidance.

The decision is likely to impact major tech companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and startups, which have a large presence in eastern Massachusetts.

The State Department acknowledged that some businesses have struggled to deal with their employees being stuck elsewhere. “Forcing employers to replace employees in this situation may cause financial hardship,” the guidance reads.

It also adds exceptions for H-1B applicants who are “technical specialists, senior level managers, and other workers whose travel is necessary to facilitate the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States.” Those individuals have to prove that their employer has a continued need for their services during the pandemic, that they’re paid more than the prevailing wage for their position, and that they have unusual expertise in their industry.  They can also claim that their employer would suffer financial hardship if the visa is denied.

Mahsa Khanbabai, an immigration lawyer, said the new guidance offers some badly needed clarification on who qualifies for an exemption from the Trump visa suspension. But she said the guidance “is not enough to address the tremendouss hardships employers face at the hands of these nonsensical bans….The travel ban is like a concrete wall and all this guidance does is create a tiny pin hole for a few employees to get through.”

Trump had initially imposed severe limitations on work visa issuance in order to free up jobs for Americans recently unemployed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy,” Trump wrote in June. “But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers.” The order did not impact immigrants with legal work visas already in the US.

Many critics said that the kinds of jobs being freed up by the broader visa suspension, including short-term retail jobs, aren’t of interest to people like young professionals who just want to be rehired in their own industries. Some say that the State Department change comes in an effort to stop related lawsuits, including one from the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

There is no breakdown of visas issued per state, but there are annual national records. According to 2019 State Department records, 188,123 H-1B visas were issued and 76,988 L visas. The data reflects visa applications at US embassies, and isn’t entirely reflective of how many people have that status. It also doesn’t differentiate between immigrants who applied for these visas who are already in the US, and those that are applying from overseas.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

One window into the process is to see how many employers submitted a form that is required for an H-1B visa—known as a Labor Condition Application. That indicates the job, its location, duration, and salary.

According to Department of Labor statistics, 26,084 new applications were submitted from Massachusetts in 2019 using that form. The number of new visas issued is lower, as some are rejected. It is unknown how many people were outside of the US when Trump issued his order in June, as there is no way to track that.