The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump seems bent on pursuing controversial immigration policy measures following the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, visa issuance to students enrolled in universities or programmes that are conducted entirely online for the fall 2020 semester will be stopped; such students will not be permitted to enter the U.S. The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also advised that active students currently in the U.S. enrolled in programmes that would be administered in online mode are required to leave the country or transfer to a university with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, ICE cautioned, they risk the initiation of removal proceedings or similar immigration consequences. Palpable ripples of anger across the U.S. education system took the form of lawsuits, led by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to block the ICE directive. This is the latest twist in an ongoing immigration policy crackdown by the Trump administration, which includes a halt in the issuance of visas for skilled workers, or H-1B and their dependents, visas for intra-company transfers, or L-1 and their dependents, and several other visa categories as well as a halt in green card processing, all until the end of the calendar year.
Taking a step back, the evolving Trump immigration paradigm leaves several big questions unanswered. First, while an argument, however harsh and myopic, could be made that the U.S. economy has suffered a battering in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a key to recovery is to protect U.S. jobs from being cornered by foreign workers, what could the possible rationale be to imperil the lives of foreign students — all of them admitted to universities on merit, and none of them posing an immediate threat to jobs? Second, given that market forces of demand and supply have led to the U.S. economy being suffused with immigrant workers across sectors for many decades, how could the Trump administration now posit that its local population has adequate skilled labour to do the jobs that millions of Indians, Chinese and other foreign workers have so efficiently been doing all this while? Unless Mr. Trump is planning to massively overhaul the U.S. higher and professional education systems to imbue Americans with technical know-how and a culture of advanced learning, it may be futile to wall off large swathes of the economy to those capable of delivering value in such jobs. If Mr. Trump is only doing this to shore up his election campaign through political signalling, then it is the economic prospects of the very people he claims to be fighting for that he will damage in the longer term.