WASHINGTON—President Trump signed an order Monday temporarily barring new immigrants on a slate of employment-based visas, including the H-1B for high-skilled workers, from coming to the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The restrictions, which are set to take effect June 24 and last through the end of the year, will prevent hundreds of thousands of new immigrants who were expected to rely on the visas to work in industries ranging from tech and consulting to landscaping and seasonal jobs at resorts.
Administration officials say the move will safeguard jobs for unemployed Americans as the economy sputters—and joblessness has soared—because of lockdowns designed to contain the pandemic.
Tech-industry officials and other business leaders warned the decision would cramp companies’ ability to recruit top talent to the U.S. and bar immigrants who fill unique skill sets or take jobs most Americans won’t perform. Colleges said it would discourage top students abroad from studying in the U.S.
The order is likely to be challenged in court by business groups.
“This is a full-frontal attack on American innovation and our nation’s ability to benefit from attracting talent from around the world,” said Todd Schulte, president of Fwd.us, a pro-immigration group that advocates on behalf of American businesses.
Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai, born in India, tweeted that immigration has made the U.S. a global technology leader, adding, “Disappointed by today’s proclamation—we’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all.”
The restrictions expand on a temporary immigration ban Mr. Trump introduced in April that blocked some family members of U.S. citizens with newly issued green cards from moving to the U.S. for the time being.
In addition to the H-1B visa, the temporary ban will apply to new H-2B visas for short-term seasonal workers in landscaping and other nonfarm jobs, J-1 visas for short-term workers including camp counselors and au pairs, and L-1 visas for internal company transfers.
The administration will grant exemptions for health-care workers focused on treating and researching Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as well as those working in the food-supply chain, including seafood and food packaging, officials said.
The administration also will develop an additional exemption for people who “are necessary to facilitate the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States.”
The new restrictions won’t apply to visa-holders already in the U.S., or those outside the country who have already been issued valid visas.
The restrictions are set to last beyond Oct. 1, the start of the government’s fiscal year, when new H-1B visas in particular tend to be issued.
The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates the restrictions will block about 325,000 immigrants and their family members through the end of the year, though a senior Trump administration official put the number at 525,000.
The senior official estimated the move would reallocate about 500,000 jobs to out-of-work Americans in what he described as an “America-first recovery.”
The expanded ban follows pressure from immigration hard-liners, who have demanded the administration take steps to limit the number of foreign workers coming to the country to ensure Americans get jobs first as the economy rebounds.
The April restrictions were issued two days after Mr. Trump teased a full immigration ban on Twitter in response to the coronavirus’s economic toll, a step criticized by immigration advocates who said it was unduly harsh and by immigration hard-liners who said it was too narrow.
“I’m very heartened by this action—not only the scope of it but also the time frame of the suspension, because it means that employers can’t just hold their breath and wait until it’s over,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower levels of immigration.
A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows a majority of Americans, about 64%, believe immigrants primarily fill jobs Americans don’t want.
Manny Medina, chief executive and co-founder of Seattle-based Outreach, a tech platform for sales teams, called the changes “nonsensical.”
Outreach last week said it had received $50 million from investors to help fund an expansion in which it was hoping to add 100 people this year to its staff of 550.
Mr. Medina estimated that around 15% of his product and engineering team are workers in the U.S. on H1-B visas, many of whom are recruited from larger U.S. tech firms. If the pipeline dries up because of visa restrictions, he said, filling his engineering jobs will become even harder than before the curbs—when a historically tight labor market drove competition for workers.
“There was never a shortage of jobs for high-tech skilled workers,” he said.
New Delhi isn’t worried about the temporary restrictions on H1-B visas, said one Indian government official.
The new restrictions will delay the departure of many who had planned to go to the U.S. to work on the visas in the near future, but it will only likely impact around 30,000 people who might have gone without the new parameters, the official said.
That is a small number compared to the hundreds of thousands of Indians who are already in the U.S. on the visas. Meanwhile, if it is tough to send people to America to do the work more of it will be done offshore in India, he said.
In a May 27 letter addressed to Mr. Trump, nine Republican senators, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, urged him to reconsider broad new restrictions on temporary work-visa programs, which the senators said would ultimately hurt U.S. businesses.
“American businesses that rely on help from these visa programs should not be forced to close without serious consideration,” they wrote. “Guest workers are needed to boost American business, not take American jobs.”
Mr. Graham said Monday on Twitter that he disagreed with the move.
“I fear the President’s decision today to temporarily shut down these programs will create a drag on our economic recovery,” he tweeted.
The action echoes policies to limit legal immigration the administration has long supported, even before the pandemic. A bill written by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) that the White House endorsed in 2017 would have made deep cuts to family-based immigration and many of the same work-based visa categories included in Monday’s order.
The administration has enacted several other immigration policies it has long favored during the pandemic, including a new set of rules at the border denying nearly all migrants, including unaccompanied children, the chance to apply for humanitarian protection.
Mr. Trump has shifted his support for legal immigration, at times citing its economic benefits for the country and, at others, endorsing policies and legislation to cut overall immigration levels. The administration this year adopted a policy known as the public-charge rule, which placed a wealth test on immigrants looking to become permanent residents.
Mr. Trump’s own golf clubs and resorts employ hundreds of seasonal foreign workers on H-2B visas each year, Labor Department filings show, and Mr. Trump has previously voiced support for the program.
In addition to Monday’s temporary action, the administration plans to enact several permanent changes to immigration policy. It will do away with the H-1B visa lottery, in favor of allotting the 85,000 available slots to the jobs offering the highest salaries. It will also tighten rules around H-1B workers assigned to third-party employers as contractors, and recalculate the wage scale to require companies to pay the visa holders higher salaries.
The administration on Monday also completed a policy ending the requirement for the government to issue work permits to asylum seekers, a change it has long wanted to adopt but which it argues will be an additional help to American workers.