Penobscot County Affirms it Welcomes Refugees

On January 28, 2019, Penobscot County Commissioners unanimously affirmed that refugees are welcome there.  This is an important message to send in a county whose population has shrunk by 1.8% between 2010 and 2018, and where the unemployment rate is at 3%, a .8% drop from a year ago.

The Commissioners first took up the issue a week previously when asked to consider the issue of consenting to refugee resettlement pursuant to a presidential Executive Order E.O., which would give states and localities veto power over federal refugee resettlement.  As described here, a federal court recently blocked implementation of that E.O.   Because of the injunction, at the January 21st meeting, the Commissioners decided to table the issue to await the outcome of the federal litigation on the E.O.

On January 28th, Penobscot County residents, Bangor’s Maine MultiCultural Center, Catholic Charities Maine, and MeBIC urged the Commissioners to not wait to send the message that the County welcomes refugees.  As MeBIC stated in its letter,

Despite starting with nothing, in a relatively short period, refugees contribute more to the economy in taxes than they consume in public benefits. A draft government report found in 2017 that within ten years of arrival in the U.S., refugees contributed more in taxes than they received in benefits.  A 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that within six years of arrival, refugees have higher rates of labor force participation than native U.S. citizens, even if their wages may be lower, and within twenty years of arrival, have contributed $21,000 more in tax payments than they received in public benefits.

Other data indicates that refugees become entrepreneurs at higher rates than U.S. citizens and even than other immigrants, and in 2015, refugee-owned businesses generated over $4.6 billion in business income nationwide. That year refugees also paid nearly $21 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, and had over $56 billion in purchasing power. More refugees are in their prime working years than the native-born population, with over 77% of them of prime working age in 2015, compared to over 49% of native U.S. citizens. Data specifically for Maine’s District 2 indicates that in 2014, more than 750 immigrants, including refugees, owned businesses, and immigrants paid more than $34 million in state and local taxes.

Beyond the data, in communities such as Lewiston, the positive contributions of refugees can be seen clearly. Formerly abandoned storefronts have been revitalized with shops and restaurants started by refugees, and children who arrived as refugees are now college graduates who are participating in every facet of community life, including city government. Maine, and Penobscot County, need, and benefit from immigrants, including refugees.

MeBIC is gratified that the Commissioners responded favorably and unanimously consented to accept refugees, should Catholic Charities ever seek to resettle refugees in Penobscot County’s jurisdiction.  No part of Maine, with our aging demographics and shrinking workforce, and with our humanitarian values, should be sending messages that refugees and immigrants are not welcome.


Supreme Court Allows New Rule that Will Dramatically Reduce Legal Immigration to Take Effect

On January 27, 2020, the Supreme Court lifted a nationwide injunction that had blocked the new “public charge” rule from taking effect  while its legality continues to be litigated in the lower federal courts.  This means that even though it might ultimately be struck down, in the meantime the rule can be applied nationwide, except for those immigrating to Illinois, where a statewide injunction remains in place.  UPDATE:  On February 21, 2020, the Supreme Court lifted the injunction affecting Illinois while that litigation is underway, so the new rule will apply nationwide, taking effect on February 24, 2020.

As explained here, the primary effect of the new public charge rule will be to dramatically cut legal immigration to the U.S.  It particularly targets immigrating  immediate family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who ordinarily make up two-thirds of new permanent residents (“green card” holders) each year, by imposing unprecedented new weight to whether a person already is fluent in English, has at least a secondary school education, is older than 18 and younger than 61, has private, unsubsidized health insurance, and has a good credit rating, among other new factors.

A person lacking those factors can overcome them by showing that the household they will be part of in the U.S. has an income of over 250% of the federal poverty guidelines.  In 2018, the most recent year that data is available, half of all households of native-born U.S. citizens had incomes below that year’s 250% level, and data from 2014-2016 shows that 51% of new immigrants during those years lived in households whose incomes fell below the 250% threshold.  Estimates are that the new rule will cut legal immigration to the U.S. by hundreds of thousands annually. The rule’s new requirements fly in the face of centuries of immigration history that amply prove that an immigrant’s lack of high income, education and English fluency at the time of immigration to this country need not be a barrier to eventual success and contributions to the U.S.

To be clear, to meet that 250% threshold in 2020, an immigrating spouse with limited English of a U.S. citizen would have to show that that household of two has an income of over $43,100.   If the U.S. citizen is the sole wage earner, s/he would need to earn $20.72 per hour, working full-time, to meet that threshold.  Similarly, if a naturalized U.S. citizen single mother with two children petitions to bring her 62 year old mother in order to help with the children, the U.S. citizen will have to show that she is earning over $65,500, or $31.49 per hour working full-time, to meet the 250% threshold needed to overcome the negative weight that the rule gives to those over age 61.   Individuals who cannot meet the income threshold will be denied permanent residency.

With the implementation of this rule, the administration will begin drastically cutting immediate-family immigration, something it has tried and failed to do through legislation.  This, at a time when nationwide unemployment is at record lows, and as Maine completes  a record four straight years of unemployment below 4%

Litigation on the merits of the public charge rule is still ongoing.  For the sake of family unity, and of a strong economy, we must hope that the federal courts will ultimately find the rule is illegal.


New Rule Allows Visitor Visa Denials to Pregnant Women

In a final rule issued and effective on January 24, 2020, the State Department has created a new presumption that any woman applying for a visa to visit the United States whom a consular officer “has reason to believe will give birth during her stay in the United States is presumed to be traveling for the primary purpose of obtaining U.S. citizenship for the child.”   Unless that “primary purpose” presumption is rebutted, a visa will be denied.

The new rule will give consular officers license to grill visibly pregnant women about their intent in seeking a visa to the U.S., and to make women feel harassed and vulnerable.  It will likely depress tourism from overseas.   Overseas “long haul” travel to the U.S. has already declined in recent years, with the U.S.’s share of that market declining from 13.7% in 2015 to 11.7% in 2018.   This new rule likely will further jeopardize the U.S. share of international travel, an industry that generates billions of dollars of revenue and directly supported 1.2 million U.S. jobs in 2018.

While the U.S. indeed confers citizenship at birth to babies born in the U.S., that citizenship provides no immediate benefit to the parents of the child.   A U.S. citizen cannot petition for her/his parent’s permanent residency until he or she is over 21 years old.   Having a U.S. citizen child also doesn’t provide any automatic protection from deportation to parents lacking legal status in the U.S.

While the rule acknowledges that there are no firm estimates of the extent of “birth tourism,” it claims the new presumption is needed for unspecified national security reasons.  If that is the rationale, the rule is an ineffective measure.  The U.S. routinely issues multiple entry visitor visas valid for five or ten years.  A woman issued a visa when not pregnant could travel to the U.S. years later when pregnant and give birth.  Moreover, the rule won’t apply to women who are citizens of the 39 countries who do not need visas in order to travel to the U.S. to visit for stays of 90 days or less.

For additional comments on the new rule, see this post from the Cato Institute, and a critique by a former chief of the Legal Advisory Opinion section of the Visa Office in the Department of State (paywall).


Immigrants use Public Benefits at Lower Rates than Native-Born Citizens

A recently released report from the Cato Institute confirms what earlier research has found  – that immigrants use public benefits at lower rates, and have a lower per capita benefits cost, than native-born U.S. citizens.

Other studies, some of which are synthesized in this Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Working Paper,  have shown that on balance, immigrants contribute more in taxes than they use in benefits.   Cato‘s recent report is particularly relevant at this moment -when the administration has created a new regulation to drastically reduce legal immigration to the U.S. through the application of new criteria by which intending immigrants will be judged to be likely to become “public charges” and denied residency accordingly.

That new rule is being legally challenged in multiple lawsuits across the country, although the Supreme Court lifted a nationwide injunction blocking its application while the challenges proceed, as explained here.

Recently, more than 100 businesses, including HP,  Levi Strauss, and Microsoft filed an amicus brief in one of the pending legal challenges to the new public charge rule.  They state:

Amici file this brief to explain why the final Public Charge Rule ….creates substantial, unprecedented, and unnecessary obstacles for individuals seeking to come to the United States or, once here, to adjust their immigration status (to permanent residency). By hindering immigration—including the movement of highly-skilled immigrants—the Rule will slow economic growth, prevent businesses from expanding, and break faith with core American values. This is bad policy for American businesses and American taxpayers, and amici have a vital interest in ensuring that the Rule is properly held unlawful.

Immigrants, regardless of their economic, educational, and linguistic backgrounds have contributed to the U.S. economically, culturally and politically for centuries.  The Cato Institute‘s recent analysis reminds us that the data underscores what our history already illustrates – immigrants are here to get to work, not to depend on public benefits.


Temporary Protected Status for Somalis and Yemenis Extended

On January 3, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will be extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for citizens of Yemen through September 3, 2021.   The current TPS period for Yemenis was due to expire on March 3, 2020.

On January 17, 2020, the administration also announced that it will extend TPS for citizens of Somalia through September 17, 2021.  Their current TPS period was due to expire on March 17, 2020.

TPS is offered when the U.S. government determines that civil conflict or natural disaster has created conditions making it inadvisable for citizens of the designated countries who are already in the U.S.  at the moment of the TPS designation to return to their home countries.  Individuals with TPS are allowed to stay and work in the U.S. legally during the TPS period.  Somalia was first designated for TPS in 1991, and was most recently re-designated in 2012. Yemen was first designated for TPS in 2015, and was re-designated in 2017.

Somalis and Yemenis with TPS cannot yet file to extend their status, but can monitor the respective USCIS  TPS-Somalia and TPS-Yemen webpage to learn when USCIS will begin accepting their TPS re-registration applications.

Mainers Overwhelmingly Oppose Proposed Rule to Restrict Asylum Seekers’ Ability to Work

As we’ve posted previously, the  administration has proposed delaying, and in many cases denying entirely, asylum seekers’ ability to get work permits and support themselves while their asylum applications are pending – a process that can take years.

The administration received 1000 comments during the public comment period which ended on January 13, 2020, the vast majority of which opposed the proposed rule.

Mainers were responsible for about 10% of all comments filed in opposition to the proposed rule, making an extremely strong showing,  and demonstrating that Mainers clearly value asylum seekers as members of our communities and our workforce.  Several MeBIC partners and allies were among those who commented to oppose the rule, as was MeBIC.

Governor Janet Mills, and Representative Chellie Pingree were among those who submitted comments opposing the rule.  Representative Pingree’s comment was joined by forty-nine other Members of Congress.  Both of these comments included citiations to MeBIC and the contributions that asylum seekers make to Maine’s workforce and economy.

Federal Court Blocks Executive Order Giving States Veto Power over Refugee Resettlement

On January 15, 2020, a federal court in Maryland issued a preliminary injunction blocking President Trump’s September 26, 2019 Executive Order (E.O.) giving states and localities veto power over refugee resettlement in their jurisdictions.   The court found that the plaintiff refugee resettlement agencies had shown a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of their legal challenge to the E.O.

The administration had already decided to cap the number of refugees that would be resettled in the U.S. in FY2020 at 18,000, the lowest level by far since 1980, and a dramatic drop from the 118,000 cap in FY 2016.  But the E.O., by requiring express written consent from states and localities before any refugees could be resettled in their midst, further undermined the Refugee Act of 1980’s commitment to resettle individuals forced to flee their countries due to persecution.

Prior to the injunction, governors of 42 states had granted their consent, including Maine’s Governor Janet Mills, as explained here.  But on January 10, 2020, Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott became the first to deny consent, even though Bexar and Dallas Counties, home to San Antonio and Dallas-Ft. Worth, respectively, had confirmed they wanted to continue welcoming refugees, both as a humanitarian imperative, and because of the contributions that refugees make to their communities.

With the preliminary injunction, refugees can be resettled in Texas and nationwide, while litigation on the legality of the E.O. continues.

Administration Asks Supreme Court to Lift Block on New Rule that Would Reduce Legal Immigration

As discussed here, the administration proposed a change to one of the nation’s oldest immigration regulations, the “public charge” rule, by imposing new criteria by which those immigrating to the U.S. will be assessed for the risk that they may become public charges in the future.  Among other changes, under the new rule, immigrants who do not already have a strong command of English,  at least a high school education (including those who are too young to have completed high school), a job lined up prior to immigrating, and who are unable to offer the counterweight of a household income exceeding 250% of the annual federal poverty line would be denied residency in the U.S.

Before the new rule was due to take effect on October 15, 2019, several federal lawsuits were filed, and five federal district courts issued rulings blocking its implementation while challenges to its legality are underway.  The administration appealed those decisions, resulting in two appellate rulings lifting the respective lower court injunctions.

On January 7, 2020, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals heard the government’s request to lift one of the nationwide injunctions, but its subsequent ruling left the nationwide block of the new public charge rule in place.

On January 13, 2020, the administration asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the nationwide injunction, allowing the new “public charge” rule to go into effect while its legality is challenged.

Estimates are that were it to take effect, the new public charge rule would slash immediate family immigration by more than 50%.  Immediate family immigrants make up about two-thirds of annual immigration to the U.S., and are the majority of immigrants who arrive in Maine each year.

As noted here, net legal immigration to the U.S. dropped dramatically between 2016 and 2019.  Implementation of the public charge rule could lead to about 400,000 fewer people successfully immigrating to the U.S. annually, at a time when our population is aging or dying and leaving the workforce, and our birthrates are low.  Immigrants are crucial to stem the nation’s shrinking labor supply and to keep our communities and economy vibrant.

This case at the Supreme Court will be one to watch.


Canada Benefits Economically from Immigration Gains, While Immigration to U.S. Declines

As noted here, net immigration to the U.S. declined last year, contributing to the nation’s lowest rate of population growth, only 0.48%,  in decades.

An analysis from the Brookings Institution indicates that in fact, that is the lowest rate of U.S. population growth since 1918.  Looking at the rate of population growth for the past decade, Brookings found that

The 2010s was a decade of fewer births, more deaths, and uneven immigration…. The 2018-19 period had an exceptionally low growth rate of 0.48%, with immigration declining to 595,000 people—the lowest level since the 1980s—and a drop in natural increase to below 1,000,000….While immigration may have been unusually low due to recent federal restrictions which led to a decline in the noncitizen foreign-born, relatively low natural increase levels are likely to persist due to the aging of the population.

One symptom of the aging population is the decade-wide loss in young people under age 18. Between 2010 and 2019, the nation sustained an absolute decline of 1.14 million youth.

Canada faces similar challenges due to declining fertility rates and an aging population.  However, in contrast to U.S. policy in recent years which has constricted legal immigration, Canada has put policies in place to aggressively boost immigration.

As a result, in 2019, Canada, with its population of approximately 37.8 million, added a net 437,000 immigrants, or 1.16% of its population, “its fastest population increase in 30 years, even with declines in fertility” according to a report in Bloomberg.

Canada’s immigration-driven population boom has been one of the few bright spots for the economy, credited with supporting the labor force and the housing market. Without the population increases, the country would be tracking much slower growth given productivity gains have remained weak for years.

The article notes that while U.S. economic growth in 2020 is forecast to exceed that of Canada’s, one economist surveyed speculated that Canada’s robust immigration growth may help it surpass expectations.

As the Brookings analysis indicates, with the natural decrease in U.S. population due to declining birth rates and an aging population,

immigration will become an increasingly important contributor to America’s health moving forward. As the country faces continued population stagnation, the 2020s will become a crucial period for understanding the role of immigrants in our economy and society.

It will be interesting to see what the future reveals about which country’s approach to immigration best leads to positive economic outcomes.


Governor Mills Supports Continued Refugee Resettlement in Maine

In late September, 2019, President Trump announced both that the U.S. would cap refugee resettlement at 18,000 during FY 2020, the lowest number by far since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, and also issued an Executive Order creating an unprecedented new requirement that states and localities consent to refugee resettlement, as described here.

On December 16, 2019, Maine’s Governor Janet Mills gave Maine’s consent to continue participating in refugee settlement, as Maine has done for forty years.  Localities also have to consent, and the process of obtaining their consent is well underway.  However, even if localities in Maine wanted to continue resettling refugees, under the Executive Order, without the Governor’s consent, they could not do so.  As of January 10, 2020,  42 states’ governors have given consent to resettle refugees in their states in FY 2020, with only Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott failing to do so.

MeBIC applauds Governor Mills for reaffirming Maine’s commitment to helping individuals who have had to flee persecution start their lives anew in safety here in Maine, and for her acknowledgement of refugees’ positive impact on the fabric of Maine’s communities and economy.

On a separate tack, the Executive Order’s legality has been challenged by three of the leading nationwide refugee resettlement agencies, Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, Church World Service, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service .  Oral argument in a federal court in Maryland was heard on January 8, 2019 regarding whether the consent requirement will be blocked while litigation on its legality is underway.  A decision is expected imminently on the request for an injunction.


Labor Department Publishes List of Randomized H-2B Visa Application Groups

As discussed here, the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) received applications for nearly 100,000 non-agricultural seasonal positions from employers hoping to obtain H-2B visas for the second half of FY 2020 beginning April 1, 2020.   The OFLC went through a random selection process to assign the applications to several groups.

On January 8, 2019, the OFLC published the list of random group assignments.  Employers also received individual notices of their group assignments.

Group A includes applications for enough worker positions to exhaust the 33,000 H-2B visa cap for the second half of FY 2020.   Subsequent groups include applications covering up to 20,000 positions.  Applications in Group A will be reviewed first, and only if there are sufficient applications that appear  to not be approvable so that the cap will not be reached will OFLC start reviewing applications in Group B.   Applications in Group C will be considered only if the cap has not been reached after reviewing the applications in Group B, and so on, through Group E.

While the list confirms that many Maine employers filed applications to initiate the H-2B visa process for prospective seasonal employees, a review of the list shows that barely a third of positions sought by Maine employers made it into Group A.   Forty-six percent of Maine’s seasonal positions are in Groups C through E and are very unlikely to get in under the H-2B cap.  The employers who filed those applications are likely to need to look elsewhere for staffing for their seasonal positions starting between April 1st and September 30th, 2020.

Once again, the H-2B visa program will be inadequate to the task of ensuring that Maine’s employers have sufficient employees for their non-agricultural seasonal labor needs.  Congress needs to substantially raise the cap on H-2B visas, or remove the cap altogether.

Nearly 100,000 H-2B Seasonal Visa Positions Requested for Second Half of FY 2020

Midnight of the morning of January 2, 2020 marked the beginning of a three-day window for  employers seeking to use the H-2B visa program to file their applications with the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) for seasonal, non-agricultural positions with start dates of April 1, 2020 to September 30, 2020.

Within the first 24 hours, OFLC had received nearly 5000 applications for over 87,000 H-2B visas, far more than the  33,000 H-2B cap-subject visas available for the second half of FY 2020.  By the end of three day filing period, that number had risen to 99,362 positions from 5,677 applications, according to the OFLC.

All applications received from January 2nd through January 4th, 2020 have been randomly selected into processing groups for review, as explained here.    On January 8th OFLC will publish the list of processing group assignments, in addition to sending written notices to individual employers that filed applications.

While the administration has  tried to improve the filing procedures in the past year, the fundamental inadequacy of the the visa cap continues to thwart employers who need predictability in order to ensure sufficient staffing for their non-agricultural, seasonal  hiring needs.

No doubt Congress will once again, as it has in the past several years, pass legislation authorizing additional visas for the current fiscal year, but what employers actually need Congress to do is enact a permanent substantial increase or elimination altogether of the annual H-2B visa cap.


Germany Aggressively Reforms Laws to Attract Immigrants

Germany, often considered the economic engine of the European Union,  is facing demographic challenges, including an aging population, rising death rates, and low birthrates, that are causing labor shortages which are only projected to worsen during this century.

Germany is now joining the ranks of countries, such as Canada and Japan, addressing its demographic challenges through legal reforms to attract more immigrants in an effort to shore up its shrinking worforce.  On March 1, 2020, the Skilled Immigration Act will take effect to attract new immigrants interested in living and working permanently in Germany who will help strengthen the country’s economy.

Among other features, the new law redefines “professional” to include not just higher education graduates, but also those with vocational skills who have completed training courses of at least two years’ duration.  Professionals will need to have their qualifications recognized by Germany but won’t need to have a job offer in order to relocate.  They can  get a six-month residence permit in order to look for a job in fields related to their qualifications, even if there is no skills shortage in Germany in those fields.   A key change is the elimination of the requirement, that also exists in the U.S.,  for verification that no qualified German worker is available to do the job before an employer can hire a foreign professional.  Foreign professionals with employment will be eligible for permanent residency after four years.   The law also makes it easier for foreign students who come to Germany to pursue university degrees or vocational training, to get residency.  This post explains the new German law in more detail.

In 2012, Germany made a less aggressive attempt to attract foreign talent, but it fell short in part because it aimed only at those with the equivalent of bachelors or higher degrees, while the German economy also needs workers in jobs that don’t require that level of education.

The United States faces similar demographic challenges to Germany, Canada and Japan.   Yet the administration and Congress have failed to make serious efforts to substantially reshape the U.S.’s outdated immigration laws.  Canada has experienced record increases in immigration since enacting its immigration reforms.

It will be worth watching Germany to see if the Skilled Immigration Act produces similar results.   If so, policy makers in Washington D.C. should consider following these countries’ leads and act to substantially reduce current barriers to immigration, particularly for foreign students who obtain their higher education at U.S. institutions, to ensure that the U.S. can maintain a robust workforce and a strong economy.