WASHINGTON—Business groups and immigrant advocates say they are worried that a ban imposed last year on most forms of legal immigration in response to the Covid-19 pandemic could stick even as
undoes many of his predecessor’s other immigration policies.
The ban, which former President
put in place in April and expanded in June, was intended to block the entry of foreigners who might take open jobs while U.S. unemployment was soaring. It covers workers in a range of industries—from tech and consulting to landscaping and seasonal resorts—along with most family members of U.S. citizens looking to immigrate.
During the campaign, Mr. Biden criticized the ban several times, writing in one June tweet that it was “yet another attempt to distract” from the Trump administration’s pandemic response: “The President can’t scapegoat his way out of this crisis.”
Mr. Biden has signed executive orders halting construction of Mr. Trump’s border wall and ending a ban on travel from several countries, including a number of Muslim-majority nations, but he hasn’t mentioned the legal-immigration ban.
It is set to expire at the end of March if not renewed, but several industry representatives say that is too long to wait, given the impact the ban is having. Business groups that argued during the Trump administration that the ban disrupted companies’ operations and slowed the country’s economic recovery are now offering another objection.
More than a hundred trade associations and immigrant-advocacy organizations sent the president a letter Friday seeking a reversal of the ban, comparing his inaction on visas with his response to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigration that separated families arrested crossing the U.S. southern border.
“You have set forth family reunification as one of the animating principles of your vision for immigration reform,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, the imposition of [the ban] has kept U.S. citizens and permanent residents separated from their parents, adult children, siblings and fiancés.”
White House advisers have signaled that the administration will move cautiously, undoing as many of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies as possible without appearing to contradict its efforts to bring the pandemic under control.
“The executive actions signed thus far are just the beginning,” a White House spokesman said, though he didn’t respond to specific questions about plans for the ban.
Mr. Trump’s chief immigration adviser and the ban’s architect, said in an interview that it was “perhaps one of the most important things we did on the economic side of the pandemic” because it kept available jobs open for unemployed Americans. A repeal, he said, would amount to “a massive redistribution of wealth from U.S. labor to U.S. corporations.”
Business leaders say they need the restrictions lifted quickly because there aren’t American workers who can fill their very specific needs. They also say companies need to plan for an improving economic outlook and temporary summer hiring. Tech companies blocked from bringing in employees on H-1B visas for high-skilled foreign professionals, for example, have left jobs unfilled or hired their preferred employees to work remotely from abroad.
Many companies reliant on seasonal labor, including resorts and landscapers, say they have cut back business because they couldn’t find enough Americans willing to take temporary, low-paying jobs.
The ban also applies to top foreign executives of multinational companies, who typically use L-1 visas to make internal transfers.
“We’ve seen examples of executive-level managers who lead teams of hundreds of people, and they are unable to come to the United States to kick off that big project,” said
director of innovation policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. “So that results in delays in production, new business lines, things like that.”
president of Steel Pier Associates, LLC, which operates the Steel Pier amusement park in Atlantic City, N.J., said the visa uncertainty has hampered his planning for the summer season. Normally he would be preparing to hire about 140 foreign college students through the J-1 visa program, he said, to join the roughly 180 American high-school and college students he typically brings on.
Last summer, when the ban was in effect and his business was already suffering due to social-distancing requirements, Mr. Catanoso said he was so short-staffed that he shut some restaurants and rides, and shortened operating hours.
“We’re being very cautious and trying to hold off where we can,” he said. “But we’ll need to know soon whether they’ll be allowed in.”
Businesses received a partial reprieve in October, when a federal judge in San Francisco ruled the ban couldn’t be applied to member companies of several large business associations, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But that excludes many small businesses, particularly those reliant on seasonal work.
And immigration lawyers say U.S. consulates have been slow to recognize the exemption, meaning the whole visa-granting process is gummed up.
“The problem is, even though there’s a partial exemption for certain businesses, the government hasn’t prioritized processing these visas,” said
director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
And families still face the effects of the ban in bringing in members from overseas. Sven Olensky, who works in technology security in Atlanta, wants to bring his 80-year-old father over from southern Germany but has been unable to get a visa. The idea that his elderly father would come and take a job away from Americans is “preposterous,” he said, noting that the benefit to his family of uniting his father with his children would be immeasurable.
Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com
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