Business

Suspension of new H-1B visas could leave Eastern Iowa businesses vulnerable, experts say

Immigration lawyer advises H-1B holders against travel outside the United States

Businesses apply for H-1B visas to hire international workers who have #x201c;highly specialized knowledge#x201d; and at
Businesses apply for H-1B visas to hire international workers who have “highly specialized knowledge” and at least a bachelor’s degree. (Dreamstime/TNS)
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A federal effort to open jobs for Americans during coronavirus could be hurting Iowa businesses’ ability to grow, experts warn.

The Trump administration issued an executive order June 22 suspending new H-1B visa requests through the rest of 2020, effective immediately.

The executive order cited foreign workers taking away American jobs in an already-challenging economic time. The Associated Press cited a senior official saying the order will open as many as 525,000 jobs for American workers.

But H-1B visas — which companies apply for to recruit international workers who have “highly specialized knowledge” and at least a bachelor’s degree to the United States — have been a vital tool for a handful of major employers in Eastern Iowa.

“We definitely have a lot of technology businesses that rely on talent that they attract from outside the country,” said Kate Moreland, president of the Iowa City Area Development Group.

“I don’t know that we know the exact impact yet, but it certainly takes a whole area of recruiting and pool of talent off the table.”

Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council, went a step further, saying the suspension of new H-1B visas will “really stifle the country and Iowa’s ability grow.”

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“We should be doing everything we can to attract the world’s best and brightest into our countries,” Murphy said. “That’s going to help our companies. That’s going to help our economy in Iowa.”

The restriction affects some of the most recognizable employers in Eastern Iowa.

Collins Aerospace and its subsidiaries applied for 164 new or continuing H-1B visas in the 2018-19 fiscal year, per federal data.

The University of Iowa applied for 175 new or continuing H-1B visas.

“The H1-B visa program, along with the various other student and worker visa programs, is a critical component of what makes our institution and community among the best in the world,” UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said in a statement.

Iowa State University, which applied for 83 new or continuing H-1B visas in the 2019 fiscal year, is facing a similar challenge.

“The suspension of the H-1B visa issuance limits Iowa State’s ability to attract top scientists and researchers working in specialized fields to support the university’s research and teaching mission,” Angie Hunt, ISU spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Hunt said Iowa State is particularly concerned about how this “complicates” emergency travel for H-1B visa holders.

Lori Chesser, an immigration lawyer for Des Moines-based Davis Brown Law, said she is advising anyone with an H-1B visa against traveling outside the country.

While people in the United States are exempt from the executive order, Chesser said the State Department’s refusal to give new visas means an H-1B holder might not get back in.

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“That’s a problem. What if you’re going to get married, what if your brother is going to get married, what if your parents are sick, what if your grandmother is dying?” Chesser asked. “It’s horrible for people.”

The restrictions are especially problematic, she said, for someone on an H-1B visa who is back home during the pandemic.

“You think, ‘Oh, I’ll just go get my H-1B visa and come back in,’” Chesser said. “Well, now you can’t do that.”

Chesser said varying interpretations of the executive order from the State Department, Customs and Border Patrol and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services adds confusion to the process.

“The jury is still out on exactly what it means,” Chesser said. “If you show up with a visa, (Customs and Border Patrol) can still say, ‘No, no, no, you’re banned.’”

“If you don’t have an H-1B in hand right now ..., you’re not going to get one, and you’re not going to be able work in this country for a company until that executive order is expired,” the Iowa Business Council’s Murphy said.

We’ve been here before

While higher education and manufacturing are the hardest hit in the area from H-1B restrictions, they are not the only ones.

Pearson has about two dozen employees working in Iowa via H-1B visas, according a company spokesman. ACT, based in Iowa City, applied for 14 visas in the 2019 fiscal year, federal data records.

Even if a company doesn’t apply for a H-1B visa — which Chesser notes can be costly — Murphy said the impact from denied H-1B visas could affect everyone.

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“Virtually every company is a technology company now,” Murphy said. “It’s going to impact all businesses.”

Companies have faced H-1B visa problems before, but not to this extent. Congress capped H-1B visas for the 2020-21 fiscal year at 85,000.

Health care workers fighting the pandemic, food service employees and agricultural workers are exempt from the order, helping the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, among other Eastern Iowa companies.

Murphy described the exemption as “extremely important” during the pandemic.

The UIHC already has seen challenges with finding enough doctors, CEO Suresh Gunasekaran told Gov. Reynolds’ Economic Recovery Advisory Board this past month.

“Iowa continues to be dangerously close to not having enough doctors, period,” Gunasekaran said.

The exemption doesn’t cover physicians not fighting the pandemic, though.

“You still need doctors,” Chesser said. “Despite COVID, people have other health problems.”

The Trump administration said the move will open 525,000 jobs for Americans.

“In the administration of our nation’s immigration system, we must remain mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in the current extraordinary environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor,” Trump wrote in his presidential proclamation.

Business experts in Iowa rebuked that logic, though.

“We aren’t training people for those high-skills jobs at a fast enough rate to be able to cover that spread,” Moreland said. “That’s the challenge that we’re talking about.”

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Before the pandemic, Murphy said Iowa had more jobs — about 56,000 — than people looking for work — about 40,000.

Experts also refuted the idea that H-1B visas allow companies to get cheap foreign labor.

Outside of the cost of getting the H-1B visa approved, wage restrictions mean these employers do not get a discount for international workers.

An employer cannot pay an H-1B visa holder less than an American holding a similar position or the U.S. Department of Labor’s prevailing wage for the occupation, Chesser said.

A report from U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services found the average salary of an H-1B beneficiary was $93,000 in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

“If there was one (qualified worker) here, you probably would’ve hired that person,” Chesser said.

Murphy, whose Iowa Business Council has been a proponent of expanding H-1B visa caps, said Iowa should “have a big welcome mat,” as Gov. Robert Ray did in the 1970s.

“We have such a great history in our state of being welcoming,” Murphy said. “When no other states would take refugees from Southeast Asia, Iowa welcomed its doors to them, and now we have those individuals as such a critical part of our workforce and our economy and our culture.

“That will only help Iowa’s long-term success moving forward.”

Otherwise, Chesser sees these jobs going completely overseas.

“Those jobs can really be done anywhere around the world,” Chesser said.

“Then we also don’t have the income, purchasing and taxes and all those things the foreign worker would’ve brought here. ... This is completely unproductive.”

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