‘This move could not come at a worse time for the city, which is reeling from the economic blow wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.’

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White House

Over the past decade, New York City doubled down on efforts to diversify its economy following the 2008 financial crash that highlighted the dangers of relying too heavily on any one industry.

The result was a tech boom that generated thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in investment, leading some to nickname the Big Apple “the Silicon Valley of the East.” Even the demise of the much-anticipated Amazon HQ2 proposal in 2019 does not appear to have hindered growth in the sector, with even the online retail giant itself continuing to grow its footprint in the five boroughs.

But the Trump administration’s ill-conceived presidential proclamation to suspend new work visas and deny employment permits for hundreds of thousands of skilled foreign workers, could derail this progress. This move could not come at a worse time for the city, which is reeling from the economic blow wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The worker visa ban, combined with the extension of restrictions on new green cards, could keep hundreds of thousands (according to the Trump Administration, 525,000) foreign-born workers out of the U.S. through the end of this year. It will have far-reaching effects, both in New York and across the nation, as it applies not only to H-1B visas for highly skilled individuals like STEM professionals and computer scientists, but also visas intended for short-term seasonal workers, professors and students, and intra-company transfers.

The Trump administration maintains these restrictions are necessary to safeguard jobs for American citizens. But in addition to filling critical workforce gaps, H-1B recipients actually result in the creation of new jobs and higher wages. By contrast, this ban, instead, encourages companies to offshore work, cuts jobs, and shrinks the economy and tax contributions of these foreign-born workers.  

These workers are critical to our economy’s growth and success because they have highly prized and difficult-to-acquire skills – particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In fact, the U.S. has consistently lagged behind foreign competitors such as China and India in graduating STEM students who play a vital role in the global economy.

Nowhere has the tech industry’s crucial role in New York City’s economy been clearer than Brooklyn, part of which I am proud to represent. The borough is one of the nation’s innovation economy leaders, with a 356 percent growth rate in tech start-ups between 2008 and 2019, a big factor in the city as a whole achieving an overall growth rate of 308 percent. That massive jump was second only to San Francisco, according to data compiled by the Center for an Urban Future.

Companies that have invested in New York City’s tech boom, including Google and Facebook, implored the president to not issue this executive order, warning of “unintended consequences” and “substantial economic uncertainty.” But the president failed to heed that call, even as he insists that recovering the jobs and revenue lost amid the pandemic is his top priority. 

Ironically, the White House recognized the importance of international cooperation and tapping into workers’ expertise regardless of where they live in at least two critical sectors, even as it seeks to curtail employment opportunities in this U.S. The president’s recent executive order calls for the Departments of Labor and State to develop guidelines to exempt health care workers focused on researching and treating COVID-19 and exempts temporary workers supporting the food supply chain – a tacit acknowledgment that a global pandemic of this magnitude requires a global solution.

Here in New York, we have long recognized that we are a state – and a nation – of immigrants, and we have welcomed them with open arms, growing stronger with their contributions to our economy and our communities. In 2014 alone, immigrants earned $1.3 trillion nationally and paid $224 billion in federal taxes and $105 billion in state and local taxes, $42.4 billion of which went to governments here in New York. 

With experts predicting that it will take years for New York, and the nation at large, to recover from the damage done by the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump administration should be cultivating an all-hands-on-deck approach to rebuilding a strong, diverse workforce and helping the tech sector to continue to innovate and create much-needed jobs. 

The White House’s longstanding commitment to limiting entry of non-citizens into the country may be reason to doubt that we’ll see a reversal of the visa and work permit suspension, but the recent rescission of another potentially disastrous policy may be cause for hope. After much public pressure (and many lawsuits), the administration withdrew its decision to cancel visas of international college students already attending U.S. schools who wouldn’t have in-person courses this fall (though visas still won’t be honored for newly enrolled students). Perhaps with continued advocacy, including from Republicans who oppose the visa and work permit suspension, the administration will reverse course here as well.

The president should rescind the proclamation and we should all work towards sensible solutions that will help our communities get through this extraordinary crisis.

State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat, is chair of the Senate’s Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development. He represents the 26th district, covering lower Manhattan and parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, DUMBO, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens.