United States President Donald Trump on Monday signed an executive order to suspend several categories of foreign work visas, including the H-1B visa that is highly sought-after by Indian IT professionals, till the end of 2020. Trump’s decision came amid a sharp increase in the unemployment rate in the US because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The proclamation signed by Trump is scheduled to come into effect on June 24. A huge number of Indian IT professionals and companies, which already issued visas for 2021 in October last year, will now have to wait till the end of the year to get them stamped by the authorities. The move will also hit workers seeking a renewal of their visas.

In his order, Trump said that the overall unemployment rate in US had nearly quadrupled between February and May of 2020. “In the administration of our Nation’s immigration system, we must remain mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labour market, particularly in the current extraordinary environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labour,” the president said in his order. “I determined that, without intervention, the United States faces a potentially protracted economic recovery with persistently high unemployment if labour supply outpaces labour demand.”

The Trump administration has also suspended H-2B, J, and L non-immigrant visa programmes. “The entry of additional workers through the H-1B, H-2B, J, and L non-immigrant visa programmes, therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak,” Trump’s order read.

The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows American companies to employ foreign workers in occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise. In April, foreign technology professionals holding H-1B visas had demanded the extension of their permissible post-job loss limit to stay in the US from the existing 60 to 180 days amid fears of layoffs.

A unidentified senior White House official said that Trump directed his administration to make changes to the H-1B visa system and move towards a merit-based immigration system, PTI reported. Under these reforms, the H-1B programme will prioritise workers who are offered the highest salaries, so that applicants with the highest skill-set are filtered and given visas.