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Trump orders limits on foreign workers, extends immigration restrictions

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday temporarily suspended new work visas and barred hundreds of thousands of foreigners from seeking employment in the United States, part of a broad effort to limit the entry of immigrants into the country.

In a sweeping order, which will be in place at least until the end of the year, Trump blocked visas for a wide variety of jobs, including those for computer programmers and other skilled workers who enter the country under the H-1B visa, as well as those for seasonal workers in the hospitality industry, students on work-study summer programs, and au pairs who arrive under other auspices.

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The order also restricts the ability of American companies with global operations and international companies with US branches to transfer foreign executives and other employees to the United States for months or yearslong stints. And it blocks the spouses of foreigners who are employed at companies in the United States.

Officials said the ban on worker visas, combined with extending restrictions on the issuance of new green cards, would keep as many as 525,000 foreign workers out of the country for the rest of the year.

Stephen Miller, the White House aide and the architect of Trump’s immigration policy, has pushed for years to limit or eliminate the worker visas, arguing that they harm employment prospects for Americans. And in recent months, Miller has argued that the economic distress caused by the virus has made it even more important to turn off the spigot.

But the directive, which has been expected for several weeks, is fiercely opposed by business leaders, who say it will block their ability to recruit critically needed workers from countries overseas for jobs that Americans are not willing to do or are not capable of performing.

Tom Hopcroft, chief executive of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, called the Trump administration’s decision “incredibly bad policy.”

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Hopcroft, like many in the software industry, said the jobs that go to H1-B visa holders are typically positions that companies have a hard time filling.

“We don’t produce enough people with the skills we need domestically, so we need to bring people here from overseas,” Hopcroft said. “Also, immigrants bring a diversity of thoughts and ideas.”

Cutting off the flow of visas could have a particular impact in Massachusetts, given the concentration of tech jobs and universities here, he said.

“We are the innovation hub that we are because of our global connectedness,” Hopcroft said.

According to employer data published by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Massachusetts companies received about 6,900 approvals for H1-B visas in 2019. In addition, Massachusetts companies received about 13,000 continuing approvals that year, allowing workers with existing visas to stay on for an additional period.

“Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses, and other workers won’t help our country, it will hold us back,” said Thomas J. Donohue, the chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Administration officials said the president’s order would not affect people outside the United States who already have valid visas or seasonal farm workers, whose annual numbers have ranged from a low of about 50,000 to a high of about 250,000 in the past 15 years. There will also be a narrow exception for certain medical workers dealing specifically with coronavirus research, officials said.

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The order will ban au pairs who come to the United States to care for children, though officials initially told reporters they would be exempt. Later, two senior administration officials said parents could seek waivers to the ban on a case-by-case basis, with no assurance that they would be approved.

In the order, Trump described suspension of the visas as a way to ensure that Americans are first in line for scarce jobs — an assertion that immigration advocates say does not reflect the reality of a dynamic and changing workforce.

“Under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” Trump wrote in the order.

The effort to restrict entry from foreigners into the United States was at the heart of one of the president’s key promises during the 2016 campaign and is certain to play a central role as Trump seeks to energize his core supporters during his reelection campaign this year.

Nationally, Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. was the  largest H-1B employer in the 2018 fiscal year, followed by Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Infosys Ltd., Deloitte Consulting LLP, and Microsoft Corp. Other major employers include Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Google, and Facebook Inc.

Immigration restrictionists who have had the ear of the Trump administration applauded the announcement. Combined with recent measures, “the work visa suspensions will put the thumb on the labor market scale in favor of US workers,” said Jessica Vaughan, the policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates curbing immigration.

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In addition to the temporary suspensions, administration officials said Trump was directing the government to make permanent changes to a broad array of immigration regulations in order to discourage what they said was unfair competition for American jobs from foreigners looking to come to the United States.

Among those changes will be new methods of ensuring that high-skill visas in the future are awarded to the highest-paid workers and of preventing companies from contracting large numbers of midlevel foreign workers to perform accounting, programming and other technology-assisted jobs that Americans might be able to do.

Other changes would be aimed at discouraging immigrants from applying for asylum as a way of obtaining a work permit in the United States. It was unclear when those regulatory changes would go into effect.

Amid the pandemic, the Trump administration has seized on the threat to public health as a pretext to issue a series of policy changes affecting almost every aspect of the immigration system, including asylum and green cards. While many changes have been announced as temporary, they could remain in place indefinitely.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement on Monday, a diverse coalition of businesses and research universities had lobbied fiercely, flooding the White House with letters and phone calls, in an attempt to limit the scope of the executive order.

“It’s the largest crackdown on work visas that I have seen in my 35 years of practice,” said Steve Yale-Loehr, a Cornell law professor.

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Trump has used H-2B visas to hire seasonal staff for his resorts to work as cooks and waiters.


Jon Chesto and Hiawatha Bray of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which also included material from the Associated Press.