Donald Trump’s onslaught on immigrants continues. This time, however, he is targeting skilled workers at the top instead of the “huddled masses” at the margins. His administration plans to rescind the policy that allows the spouses (and children) of graduate-level workers to work legally while in the United States. This policy, signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, aimed to create additional incentives for high-skilled workers (H-1B visas) to immigrate to the United States to strengthen American economic and industrial interests. Trump’s slated elimination of it is fuelled by the very same brazen xenophobia that galvanised support for the Mexico border wall and the Muslim Ban.
While Trump is yet to build a wall, the United States’ borders are already tightening – and once again – transforming into living theatres of demographic filtering where race, nationality and religion rank as the most salient criteria for rejection and admission. Though not discriminatory on its face, Trump’s motive to dispose of the immigration standard that allows the spouses of foreign workers to legally hold employment, upon closer inspection, is saturated with animus. It aims to appease his vehement nativist base that believes Black and Brown “foreigners are taking our jobs”. A fear both wrongheaded and racist, which the Trump Administration is more than willing to serve and satiate, and in the process, deeply damage the United States’ ability to attract the world’s most skilled and talented workers.
‘Buy American and Hire American’
On April 18, 2017, Trump signed the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order. The order sought to spur a rise in wages for American workers and stricter immigration standards for foreign workers. Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” is built upon the false dichotomy that pits American versus foreign workers, playing off the inescapable psychosis in white, working class communities across the United States that immigrants of colour were the direct cause of their dire, and spiraling, economic condition. More universal societal ethos than hillbilly elegy, blaming black, brown and Asian foreigners was far more compelling an excuse for diminished employment prospects and rising debt, than the reality of the shift of the American economy from industrial to knowledge-based, and the prohibitive costs of higher education.
The “Buy American and Hire American” executive order holds: “In order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests, it shall be the policy of the executive branch to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States of workers from abroad”. The correlation drawn by the policy adopts the (il)logic of the nativist view that Americans are losing their jobs to foreigners, which at its core means that, white Americans are losing their jobs to foreigners of colour. Therefore, a precursor to understanding why such a policy is even possible is comprehending the essence of the emboldened xenophobia in white working class spaces, and the political will to serve white supremacy at the economic bottom. Making America Great again, or predominantly white again, mandates drastic remaking of American immigration policy.
Restricting the spouses of foreign workers from holding employment is a direct policy extension of the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, and both are sourced from the pointedly xenophobic and white supremacist narrative that delivered Trump the presidency, and today steers the direction of his administration. “It isn’t immediately clear if the Trump administration will rescind the rule for future applicants or also strip work permits from those who [currently] have them,” writes Sabrina Siddiqui, but the political points the policy grants Trump with his base comes with destructive short-term costs suffered by scores of immigrant families, and real damage to American interests.
The cost of Xenophobia
“I worked as an assistant professor in India. Coming to the US and settling down here was never ever my dream but I came here in 2009 for the sake of my family life,” shared Shri, “My husband got his project and I came with him and my 3 year old son, of course on dependent visa.”
The executive order passed by Obama in 2015 allowed Shri, and thousands of more immigrants that followed their spouses to the United States, to continue the careers they left behind in their native countries. An online initiative called SaveH4ead seeks to give face to the stories of these spouses, and counter the xenophobic narrative weaponised by the Trump administration that waves of faceless immigrants are plotting to strip Americans of their jobs. Through these deeply human accounts emanates another dire consequence of Trump’s anticipated policy: that deterring skilled foreign workers will detrimentally affect American innovation, industry and economic interests.
While the Muslim Ban, breaking up families at the border and expedited deportations have reversed the commitment of absorbing the world’s “huddled masses,” Trump’s anticipated executive order will also retrench the distinctly American enterprise of luring the world’s most talented and innovative minds stateside. Whether framed as a global “brain drain” or extending opportunity to talent from every corner of the globe, the Obama executive order offered more than just professional or economic incentive for skilled foreign workers. By permitting spouses to work, the policy allowed accompanying husbands and wives (the policy disproportionately impacts women) – like Shri – to continue their careers, keep their families united, and offer better lives to their children.
Therefore, the United States became a more attractive option for coveted foreign workers seeking to ply their trades abroad, and the American economy emerged as the greatest beneficiary by enlisting minds that would enrich its corporations, public sector institutions, and colleges and universities. The notion that foreign workers are economic parasites that suck and send their resources abroad is as mythic as it is malicious, belied by the reality that skilled workers and their accompanying spouses are boons to the American economy.
The success of the Obama policy was clear and immediate: in 2016, 131,051 new H-4 visas were assigned, a significant spike up from 80,015 only three years before it was enacted. Spouses, who oftentimes were highly educated skilled in their own right, were an added windfall.
Serving and satiating Xenophobia
In exchange for feeding xenophobic zealots with policy that quenches their hatred for anything immigrant and anybody “foreign,” the imminent Trump policy will bludgeon American economic and industrial interests by scaring promising foreign workers away. Instead of coming to the United States, where their spouses cannot work and their very being an affront to a swelling segment of xenophobes, foreign workers will choose to work elsewhere. And in turn, the United States will miss out on the innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and skill that foreign workers bring, by the droves.
The sad reality that underlies the “Hire American, Buy American” campaign spearheaded by Trump is that the jobs that foreign workers and their spouses fill are the jobs that a vast lot of Americans, particularly those from the white, working class communities that demand these xenophobic policies, are not educated enough to fill or skilled enough to perform. The unemployed coal miner or assembly line workers cannot fill the growing demand for mechanical engineers and software developers that the American labour supply cannot meet.
Yet, market realities matter less than the rhetoric of demagoguery in the US today, and stereotypes overpower statistics in the crafting of executive policy in the age of Trump.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.