The Omaha area business community and immigrant advocates are alarmed by President Donald Trump’s freeze on certain work visas, saying the move will hinder economic growth and chill the metro area’s ability to recruit techies.
Among visa applications to be suspended starting Wednesday is the H-1B nonimmigrant visa, which allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers for high-tech and specialized jobs.
Visa-holders of that type already in the U.S. aren’t affected by the executive order.
Andrew Schilling, in charge of International Business Development for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, called the H-1B a business-friendly program that’s in high demand by U.S. employers, including in Nebraska.
“It’s enormously popular with American businesses,” he said. “It enables them to bring skilled employees not available in the U.S. And these are good-paying jobs that aren’t undermining the salary structures of American workers.”
Last year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, about 1,500 workers of some 250 Nebraska employers were processed through the H-1B visa program. The employers were far-ranging, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center, UNL, Kiewit Corp., West Corp, CSG Systems, HDR, First Data, law firms, insurance companies, banks, roofers and auctioneers.
Union Pacific Railroad employs about 50 H-1B workers, said spokesman Tim McMahan. They mostly specialize in information technology and are hired when their skill set isn’t readily available in the local market.
Because the order exempts existing visa-holders, McMahan said, the short-term impact should be moderate. But, he said, there is risk to the employees if their current visa expires or if they travel internationally.
Like other area companies, McMahan said U.P. has had a shortage of tech talent. “Hence, in the long term, this executive order will hinder Union Pacific’s ability to recruit technical talent and make technology investments.”
Business groups nationally pressed to limit changes regarding the work visas. Also included in the order were temporary bans on new H-2B visas for nonagricultural seasonal workers, J-1 visas for cultural exchanges and L-1 visas for managers and other key workers of multinational corporations.
The president’s order was viewed as a victory for immigration hard-liners as Trump seeks to further solidify their support ahead of the November election.
One senior Trump official estimated that the move would “protect” more than 500,000 jobs of Americans from going to foreign workers.
“The president’s priority is getting Americans back to work,” the official said.
Amy Peck works on immigration and work-based visas for Omaha’s Jackson Lewis law firm. She said her firm handles hundreds of H-1B, L-1 and other work-based visa applications a year. In one timely case, she said, a Nebraska client is on the brink of bringing a specialized manager to town, and it appears that hire is nixed.
“The idea that this will save U.S. jobs is nonsense,” Peck said. “Clients by and large only hire foreign-born individuals as a last resort, if there aren’t enough U.S. workers.”
Stephanie Grattan of the Koley Jessen law firm in Omaha is the Nebraska liaison for the American Immigration Lawyers Association and also works on employment-based visas for local companies.
Grattan said Monday’s order meant, for one, that “I had a lot of work when I showed up” for work Tuesday. She and other area immigration lawyers said they were busy answering questions from clients wondering what it all meant for their workers and operations.
While the order does not affect visa-holding workers already in the U.S., Grattan said, it is just one of several recent policy changes “starting to change the landscape” for foreign workers attached to U.S. companies.
“So the concern is how much is going to keep snowballing,” Grattan said.
Erik Omar, executive director of the Omaha-based Immigrant Legal Center, called the order “another example of the Trump administration using the pandemic to target immigrants and their families.”
He said the order does not apply to people who already have valid visas or green cards, nor does it prevent people from applying for green cards or visas from within the United States. He said it applies to those applying from outside the U.S.
“Work visas bring critical expertise, knowledge and skills to the United States,” he said. “Immigrants on the visas targeted by this executive order include scientists, au pairs, tech workers, professors and academics. There is no proof that American workers are displaced from jobs as a result of the skilled worker visa programs. As with every program, there are companies that abuse the system. The ones who do should be punished. But most companies do not.”
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