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 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.
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.