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High-Skilled Immigrants Call Out The Trump Administration's 'Hypocrisy'

Sep 24, 2018
Originally published on September 24, 2018 12:18 pm

The Trump administration says it wants to move to a "merit-based" immigration system — one that gives priority to immigrants who speak English and are highly educated.

But critics say that rhetoric is at odds with the administration's actions.

"Show me any policy that's come out so far that has actually made it easier for highly skilled immigrants," says Doug Rand, who worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama.

"I haven't seen any," Rand said.

In practice, critics say the administration is making high-skilled immigrants' lives harder, in all sorts of ways. It has gotten tougher to get or renew an H-1B visa, a program that brings in tech workers, doctors and other professionals. And the administration is getting rid of other visa programs altogether.

That includes a special program for the spouses of H-1B guest workers that has been widely embraced by immigrants like Neha Mahajan. She hosts and produces a TV talk show in Edison, N.J., that's targeted mainly at Indian expats like her.

"This is the kind of work I always wanted to do," said Mahajan. "I am picking up topics that typically don't get talked about in the South Asian community. So I'm trying to be a change-maker in my community."

Mahajan has a master's degree in English literature and worked as a journalist in India. It never occurred to her that she would have trouble finding opportunities in the U.S. But Mahajan was not allowed to work when she first got here.

"So here I am in the U.S., the most advanced nation on this Earth," Mahajan said. "But I'm in a cage. A metaphoric golden cage."

Mahajan moved here with her husband and daughter in 2008 when he secured an H-1B visa to work as a software developer. But she wasn't able to work legally until 2015, when the Obama administration launched the H-4 EAD program. It allows the spouses of H-1B guest workers to get work permits once they've been approved for a green card. About 100,000 people have signed up — mostly women, and mostly from India, which has a years-long waiting list for green cards.

Now the Trump administration is poised to end the program, which it considers an overreach.

"For me, one of the main reasons for proposing to rescind that is because I don't think it's appropriate," said Lee Cissna, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of legal immigration. "I don't think that Congress intended for the spouses of H-1Bs to work."

Cissna did not respond to requests for an interview. But he did speak last month to the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

"Everything we do is guided by the law," Cissna said. "That's all we're doing."

The administration is also trying to kill another Obama-era program known as the International Entrepreneur Rule, which Doug Rand helped create.

"This was designed for entrepreneurs from other countries to more easily come to the U.S., or stay in the U.S., build companies here, create jobs for U.S. workers," said Rand, who now runs a firm called Boundless Immigration.

All of this has infuriated corporate America. The CEOs of Apple, Pepsi and other U.S. companies say the administration is scaring away high-skilled workers, which could hurt the economy.

"What the administration is saying is, we want to make it difficult for companies to employ anyone who is not an American citizen," said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council.

But the head of Citizenship and Immigration Services dismisses that.

"The idea that we are intentionally, mischievously, impishly, malevolently trying to build an invisible wall on purpose because we don't want foreign workers to come is false," said Cissna.

Nonetheless, immigrants like Neha Mahajan wonder whether the administration is serious about "merit-based" immigration.

"I don't know what to think," Mahajan said. "Hypocrisy, maybe? They want us to stay. They don't want us to stay. Why put people's lives into a limbo?"

Mahajan and other spouses of guest workers are pushing to save the H-4 EAD program that allows them to work. The Trump administration is expected to announce the official end of that program any day.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump talks a lot about moving to what he calls a merit-based immigration system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society and who will love and respect our country.

INSKEEP: Just this past weekend, the Trump administration announced regulations that would deny green cards to immigrants who use public aid such as food assistance. At the same time, the administration is also making it harder for high-skilled workers to come and build lives in this country, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Neha Mahajan loves her job.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CENTER STAGE")

NEHA MAHAJAN: Hello, and welcome to "Center Stage." I'm your host, Neha Mahajan.

ROSE: Mahajan hosts and produces a talk show in Edison, N.J., targeted mainly at Indian expats like her.

MAHAJAN: This is the kind of work I always wanted to do, and picking up topics that typically don't get talked about in the South Asian community. So I am trying to be a change-maker within my community.

ROSE: But Mahajan could lose her right to work in the U.S. because the Trump administration is poised to kill the program that gave her a work permit. Mahajan has a master's degree in English literature and worked as a journalist in India. It never occurred to her that she would have trouble finding opportunities here.

MAHAJAN: So here I am in U.S., the most advanced nation on this earth, but I'm in a cage. (Laughter). A metaphoric, golden cage.

ROSE: Mahajan moved with her husband and daughter to the U.S. in 2008. He had secured a coveted H-1B visa to work as a software developer, but she was not allowed to work when she first got here. That is, until the Obama administration introduced a new program in 2015 that allowed the spouses of H-1B guest workers to get a work permit if they're already on the waiting list for a green card. Now the Trump administration says that was an overreach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCIS CISSNA: For me, one of the main reasons for proposing to rescind that is because I don't think that Congress intended for the spouses of H-1Bs to work.

ROSE: Francis Cissna is the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of legal immigration. Cissna did not respond to requests for an interview, but he did give one last month to the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CISSNA: Everything that we do is guided by the law. That's all we're doing.

ROSE: The Trump administration says the U.S. should focus on bringing in immigrants who speak English and are highly educated. But critics say that rhetoric is at odds with the administration's actions, that the administration is actually making high-skilled immigrants' lives harder in all sorts of ways. It's gotten tougher to get or renew an H-1B visa. That's a program that brings in tech workers, doctors and other professionals. And the administration is getting rid of other visa programs altogether.

DOUG RAND: Show me any policy that's come out so far that has actually made it easier for highly skilled immigrants. I haven't seen any.

ROSE: Doug Rand worked in the Obama White House. He's one of the architects of another program the Trump administration wants to kill, the International Entrepreneur Rule.

RAND: This was designed for entrepreneurs from other countries to more easily come the United States or stay in the United States, build companies here, create jobs for U.S. workers - seemingly uncontroversial.

ROSE: All of this has infuriated corporate America. CEOs from Apple, Pepsi and other U.S. companies say the administration is scaring away high-skilled workers, and that could hurt the economy. Dean Garfield is the president of the Information Technology Industry Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEAN GARFIELD: What the administration is saying is we want to make it difficult for companies to employ anyone who is not an American citizen.

ROSE: But the head of Citizenship and Immigration Services Francis Cissna dismisses that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CISSNA: The idea that we are intentionally, mischievously, impishly, malevolently trying to build an invisible wall on purpose because we don't want foreign workers to come is false.

ROSE: Nonetheless, immigrants like Neha Mahajan wonder whether the administration is really serious about merit-based immigration.

MAHAJAN: I don't know what to think. Hypocrisy, maybe? (Laughter). They want us to stay. They don't want us to stay. Why put people's lives into a limbo?

ROSE: Mahajan and other spouses are pushing to save the Obama-era program that allows about a hundred-thousand of them to work. The Trump administration is expected to announce the official end of that program any day. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.