The author would like to thank Rachel Iacono for assisting with research for this blog post.
In June 2020, the Trump administration extended an executive order issued in April that suspended the processing of green cards overseas with the stated aim of protecting American workers from foreign competition during the COVID-19 recession. Although the order exempted certain categories of employment-based immigrants such as healthcare workers, it banned the entry of nearly all categories of employment-based green cards. Our analysis of data from the Department of Labor suggests1 that the administration’s policy falls short of meeting its stated objectives. We found that the industry supersectors with the greatest employment losses during the current recession do not align with the industry subsectors that have applied for the most employment-based green cards. Furthermore, the employment losses in the largest subsectors exceeded the number of certified applications they received between 2006 and 2019.
Although all industries have suffered employment losses during the recession, our analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that service supersectors such as Leisure and Hospitality and heavy industries such as mining suffered the greatest percentage losses compared to their mid-to-high skilled counterparts between February and June 2020 (Figure 1). Other studies examining these trends support our findings. After a March 2020 Brookings study identified the leisure and hospitality supersector as the one most vulnerable to employment losses in a COVID-driven downturn, subsequent studies from other organizations found that this supersector and other service-oriented sectors had the highest employment losses since the recession’s onset in February. Studies also revealed that the employment losses gradually spread from low-skilled to high-skilled sectors during the recession, with the leisure and hospitality supersector hit first and higher-skilled sectors such as finance and insurance impacted last.
Studies on the disparities in job losses across U.S. industries discovered that jobs in service sectors suffered large losses because their positions require face-to-face interactions, leading employers to lay off their workers as states’ stay-at-home orders shuttered these businesses. In contrast, high- and mid-skilled industries had fewer losses because more employees could work remotely during these shutdowns.2 While analyses of employment levels in June 2020 noted service sectors had modest employment increases because more employees could return to work after states lifted restrictions (reflected in Figure 1), the decisions of some state governments to pause or rollback reopening plans after June’s surge of COVID-19 cases may limit this recovery since these measures severely impact service sector businesses like bars.
A review of the five NAICS subsectors with the most annual certified labor applications for employment-based green cards suggests that most of these beneficiaries have worked in high-to-mid-skilled industries since 2006. As Figure 2 shows, the top five NAICS subsectors account between 67.4% to 83.4% of the NAICS subsectors that receive certifications. The Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services subsector, which has sponsored many employees to work industries such as engineering and other STEM fields, received 31.7% to 47.7% of these certifications. DOL data on occupations that received the most certified applications6 also shows that these beneficiaries work in mainly in high-skilled positions. In the first two quarters of FY2020, for instance, the top three occupations by certifications were Application Software Developers, System Software Developers, and Computer Systems Engineers/Architects.
Service-focused subsectors like Retail and Trade and Accommodation and Food Services have also employed modest levels of employment-based green card beneficiaries since 2006, albeit intermittently. While the Accommodation and Food Services subsector received 4,616 certified applications in fiscal year 2006, which was the fifth highest for the fiscal year, these numbers dropped to 3,196 in FY2016, which was the eighth highest number that fiscal year. In contrast, the Retail and Trade subsector received 3,376 certifications in FY2006, which was the ninth highest number for the fiscal year, before rising to 5,937 in FY2019, which was fifth highest that fiscal year. In short, this data suggests that service-focused sectors have not consistently sponsored significant numbers of non-citizens compared to their high-to-mid-skilled counterparts.
A comparison of the data in Figures 2 and 3 suggests that most employment-based immigrants work in supersectors that have had low-to-modest employment losses during this recession. As Figure 3 shows, the Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services subsector, which had the most annual certified applications in Figure 2, lies within the supersector that had median job loss of 8% during the current recession, Professional and Business Services. The Manufacturing subsector, which had the second highest certifications, had even fewer job losses. While the Accommodations and Food Services subsector, which had fifth highest certifications more than a decade ago, overlapped with the struggling Leisure and Hospitality supersector, the subsector has had much lower levels of immigrant sponsorship since the prior recession in 2008.
Although there is some overlap between the sectors with the most labor certifications and employment losses, migrants may not displace high numbers of existing workers because the number of certified positions is very small compared to the overall declines. As Figure 4 shows, the Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services subsector had a range of 11,524 to 52,514 certified applications between 2006 and 2019, while it lost more than 508,800 employees between February and June 2020. In the case of Accommodation and Food Services subsector, for instance, DOL certified only 3,196 positions in FY2016. In contrast, the subsector lost 3,917,100 employees during the recession while its parent Leisure and Hospitality supersector lost 4,827,000. If the United States does not admit these immigrants—whom DOL certified would fill unfilled positions—the number of jobs freed up would be tiny compared to the number of unemployed workers in these sectors.7
This conclusion raises doubts about the effectiveness of the executive order in meeting its stated goal. The Trump administration has stated the order would create openings for American workers to take jobs that otherwise would have gone to overseas green card applicants. However, the NAICS supersectors with the greatest employment declines do not align with the NAICS subsectors with the most certified applications. Suspending these green cards may not create more job openings because employment losses in these sectors easily exceed their number of certified applications, meaning jobs may not be available to any workers. So, this analysis suggests that while the order would explicitly limit legal immigration, it would not protect jobs for American workers via carefully crafted adjustments to the green card program.
The administration’s decision to issue an order instead of using existing immigration protocols for protecting the U.S. labor market reinforces this point. Under existing regulations8 and guidelines9, the Department of Homeland Security can terminate a green card application if the employer terminates the position for the beneficiary before they arrive in the United States. Given that a recession would naturally lead to the elimination of positions reserved for green card beneficiaries as well as U.S. workers, the administration could have allowed these mechanisms to automatically prevent the entry of foreign workers. Instead, it has taken the extraordinary step of using its legal authorities to shut down permanent immigration and, more recently, the temporary work visa program. Although the immigration debate should consider ways to allocate green cards and temporary work visas based on existing labor conditions, the administration’s measures mark a new and unprecedented use of executive authority to meet its long-term goal of restricting legal immigration, especially employment-based channels.
This study uses two types of data from the Department of Labor to assess whether the Trump administration’s order suspending the entry of individuals with green cards may save jobs in the U.S. labor market. The first source of data is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics (CES) database, which gathers monthly employment rates for industries within the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS). We use the CES database to track the employment numbers across every NAICS supersector between February and June 2020 and rank them by the percentage of employment losses during this period. This data, which appears in Figure 1, serves as a proxy for the condition of the U.S. job market during the recession.
The second data source is the Department of Labor’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC), which produces data on the processing of labor market tests for employment-based green cards. The OFLC’s reports and fact sheets include the five NAICS subsectors with the most certified applications for every fiscal year, which we use as a proxy for the number of potential green card employment-based immigrants who may enter the U.S. job market during the recession. In order to identify which NAICS subsectors had the most potential number of employment green card beneficiaries, we gathered the five subsectors with the most certifications from OFLC reports published between 2006 to 2016 and a FY2019 fact sheet and incorporated this information into Figure 2. OFLC has not published this data in accessible form for FY2017 and FY2018.
Finally, we compared the data in Figures 1 and 2 to determine whether more employment-based immigrants would potentially enter industries experiencing employment losses between February and June 2020. First, we aligned the five NAICS subsectors with the most certified applications from Figure 2 with their respective NAICS supersector from Figure 1. We then examined whether the NAICS subsectors that consistently received the most certified applications between 2006 and 2016 and 2019 aligned with the NAICS supersectors with the highest employment losses. We also examined whether the historic range of the number of certified applications for these NAICS subsectors exceeded their employment losses during the recession.
The OFLC data does create limitations for our analysis. First, we recognize that the OFLC application certification data does not provide an exact number of the final number of green cards that each NAICS subsector receives. We also recognize that some employment-based green cards like the EB-1 for executives do not require a labor market test, meaning these applications do not appear in our data. Finally, the absence of a labor market test for family-based green card applications makes it difficult to know which NAICS subsectors employ the highest number of these beneficiaries. While we believe that our study does challenge the underpinnings of the green card order, we call for OFLC, USCIS, and the State Department to publish data on the final number of green cards for each NAICS subsector to improve analyses like ours.
1 This blog post only examines the impact of suspending employment-based green cards on U.S. employment. Given that the U.S. government does not gather industry-level data on the employment of family-based immigrants, we cannot assess their impact on the current labor market.
2 It should be noted that workers with employment-based green cards can work remotely like their U.S. citizen counterparts. This right does not extend to workers with H-1B high skilled non-immigrant visas, which require the non-citizen to work from a specific worksite. DOL issued guidance in mid-March that allowed workers with these visas to work in the same general area as the worksite during the pandemic without their employer needing additional approval from the agency.
3 May and June figures are preliminary.
4 This supersector is called Natural Resources and Mining in the NAICS system. However, the BLS data does not include farm industries, leading the agency to use Mining and Logging as the title for this sector.
5 Although BLS includes government as one of its supersectors, it does not have a NAICS code. We have included this sector to have a complete analysis of this data.
6 A certified position is one that successfully completes a Labor Certification, the labor market test for some employment-based green cards. This test requires the employer to show the Department of Labor that the employer could not find a qualified U.S. worker for the position and that the wages and working conditions for the job are the same as for U.S. workers at the employer and in the area. This process requires a period of domestic recruitment even if the individual is already employed in the position on a temporary worker visa. If the employer passes this test, the employer files a petition on behalf of the foreign worker in the category for which they qualify.
7 Furthermore, the final number of green cards issued to employers in high loss NAICS industries may be lower than certified applications since USCIS can reject the applications after the labor certification process, and the immigrant would be ineligible for a visa, if the job is no longer available.
8 See 8 CFR § 245.25
9 See Volume 7, Chapter 6 of the USCIS Adjudicator’s Policy Manual for adjustments of status within the United States. See this section of the of the State Department Foreign Affairs Manual and Handbook Guide for processing employment-based green cards abroad.