Trump’s visa suspensions may permanently damage America’s reputation

Last week President Trump suspended visas for huge categories of immigrants, allegedly to “protect American jobs.”

To understand how disingenuous this rationale is, consider the case of Vihaan Baranidharan.

Vihaan is stuck in India, where he went to see his sick grandmother for what was supposed to be a short visit. Thanks to Trump’s order, he’s blocked from getting the visa stamp needed to return to Dallas. But Vihaan has not taken, nor has any plans to take, any American’s job. He doesn’t have the experience to be competitive in the U.S. job market — or even sufficient vocabulary.

Because Vihaan just finished first grade.

“What risk could he pose to the U.S. economy?” pleads his mother, Sindhu Turumalla. “He is 7.”

That doesn’t matter to the Trump administration, which is exploiting the economic downturn as another excuse to punish immigrants — whether legal or undocumented, professional or working class, entrepreneur or student, adult or child.

The United States is so far the only country to “explicitly justify mobility limitations not on grounds of health risk, but to protect the jobs and economic wellbeing of” its citizens, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

In an April executive order, Trump suspended issuance of green cards for most people applying from abroad. Last week’s executive order expanded the ban to large categories of temporary, employment-based visas. This included the highly skilled immigrants the administration usually claims it prioritizes, as well as any spouses and minor children who normally accompany these workers.

The U.S. economy is indeed in bad shape. But it’s hard to fathom that the estimated 377,000 would-be immigrants now barred from entry present much “risk to the U.S. labor market,” as Trump claims.

Keeping them out, however, could actually harm the economy in the long run. Vihaan’s family presents a helpful case study.

His dad, an executive handling cybersecurity at a major global bank, has been based in the United States since 2017 on a visa specifically for executives transferred from abroad within the same company. He manages, and hires, U.S. workers. While unemployment overall is in double digits, in his field — computer-related occupations — unemployment has declined since the pandemic began, hitting 2.5 percent in May.

What’s more, economists generally believe that highly skilled immigrants like him create job opportunities for Americans and make the country more competitive, especially in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, fields.

Vihaan and his mom, who is a homemaker, traveled to India in late February to see Vihaan’s grandmother, who has stage-4 cancer. Then, like dozens of other immigrant families I’ve talked to over the past week, they were hit with a series of shocks.

Return flights were canceled. U.S. consulates closed, preventing access to required visa stamps. Then, Trump’s executive order declared that even if consulates reopen soon, they won’t issue such visas until at least 2021.

The order has incited chaos and panic for the many legal immigrants stranded halfway around the world from their loved ones. Denver-based software developer Kranthi Goud told me that he and his wife have valid visa stamps, but that they cannot get a visa for their 4-month-old daughter, who was born in India.

“This is the time when I should be bonding with her,” Goud said. He is temporarily working from India but fears having to choose soon between his job and his baby.

Perhaps such family separations are an accident of sloppy policy design. But it’s hard not to view them as a deliberately punitive choice to bar entry of new high-skilled immigrants while also making life more painful for those already here.

Even if the ban is temporary, America’s reputation with global talent may be permanently damaged.

High-skilled workers are being welcomed in other countries. Cisco’s chief executive recently referred to Trump’s suspension of visas for such workers as “a Canadian Jobs Creation Act.”

Other U.S. jobs may also be lost in the long run. Right now, international executives cannot reliably visit their factories or offices in the United States. Next time they build a plant, they might locate it elsewhere.

Already, affected families are exploring their options.

Turumalla, Vihaan’s mom, says the family has been happy in Dallas. Vihaan loves his school and with a local therapist’s help has made huge progress with a speech impediment. The family bought a house and thought they were living “the American Dream”; they hadn’t even entertained positions Vihaan’s dad was offered in other countries.

Then, Turumalla overheard her son say something in a video chat with a classmate that unsettled her — that he probably won’t be back for second grade because the president doesn’t like him and doesn’t want his family here.

She’s still hoping to return to Dallas, and her husband, soon. But she’s reevaluating their long-term plans: “I’m not sure I want my son to grow up in such a hostile environment.”

Published: 30 June 2020

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