Pennsylvania officials in both parties have struck at President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend visas for temporary foreign workers with special skills and education.
Trump announced Monday that he would suspend new applications for H-1B visas, which let tens of thousands of highly skilled workers — especially those with technical and scientific skills — stay in the country temporarily. Other suspensions would affect temporary foreign workers who staff the hospitality industry, as well as cultural workers.
While Trump administration officials said the suspensions would reduce competition for American workers, businesses that rely on H-1B workers have sharply criticized the move. While the workers tend to be concentrated in large cities and technology hubs, businesses and institutions throughout the country file for the visas. In fiscal year 2019, at least three Altoona employers alone filed for H-1Bs, and 11 did so in State College, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.
“This is yet another ploy by the Trump administration to push its xenophobic agenda under the guise of helping Americans,” Gov. Tom Wolf said this week, arguing that the economic impact of Trump’s move would make it harder to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. “These workers, who are arriving in Pennsylvania legally, play an essential role in making our communities strong and vibrant.”
Some Republicans criticized Trump as well. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. — who has opposed Trump’s occasionally protectionist economic policies in the past — believes it would make life harder for U.S. citizen workers as well.
“Temporary nonimmigrant workers contribute to the U.S. economy, pay taxes and help drive innovation and job creation,” Toomey said. “Even in the current employment environment, limiting visas for these workers will only serve to prevent companies from filling open positions. This will slow economic growth, drive up the costs of goods and services, and ultimately cost jobs for American workers.”
Trump’s move comes as nationwide unemployment remains high — more than 13 percent, according to federal data — and tens of millions of workers receive unemployment payments. In his proclamation this week, Trump said seasonal and hospitality workers on temporary visas make up an “excess labor supply” that can harm U.S. workers, although it remains to be seen how many of those jobs will be filled at all amid a pandemic.
Reps pass night vision hunting
Wolf is set to make a final decision on a bill that would allow night vision and thermal scopes for hunters — a change that advocates say would make it easier to hunt dangerous pests and invasive animals.
House Bill 1188 passed the state Senate near-unanimously on Tuesday, after already easily passing the House. The brief bill would eliminate a ban on gun and archery sights that “transmit any light beam, infrared beam, ultraviolet light beam” or others to better see targets.
State Rep. Parke Wentling, R-Conneaut Lake, said the bill would improve hunters’ chances against destructive predators like coyotes, which hunt at night and often target pets and livestock.
“(Coyote) population numbers continue to increase regardless of the fact that they can be hunted 24 hours a day, nearly 365 days a year,” Wentling said in a memo to colleagues. “Predator populations must be kept in check to help protect livestock, pets, personal property and further help ensure the personal safety of our constituents.”
The bill’s co-sponsors include state Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon. Local lawmakers all backed the bill in votes this month.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen & Conservationists, a pressure group, urged Wolf to sign the bill last week.
“Updating and allowing the use of the most current technology continues to bring Pennsylvania into hunting standards associated with the 21st century,” representatives said in a news release.
Bill would allow
guns in emergencies
Another gun bill — awaiting a Senate hearing after passing the House this week — would make it easier for owners to buy and carry firearms during a state of emergency.
House Bill 1747 passed the House 127-74 on Wednesday, with support from local representatives. Its cosponsors include Irvin and Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills.
While the bill was first proposed in summer 2019, it was brought to a floor vote amid an ongoing battle over Wolf’s emergency powers. GOP lawmakers have repeatedly challenged Wolf’s ability to impose restrictions during the Covid-19 crisis, with some even moving to impeach the popular governor this month.
The bill would rewrite a longstanding state law stipulating that gun owners cannot carry firearms publicly during a state of emergency. It would also eliminate the state’s power to restrict firearms sales during emergencies (although sales of alcohol and explosives still could be banned).
“I don’t believe either of these requirements are necessary under a state of emergency and propose that both be repealed,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Matthew D. Dowling, R-Uniontown, told colleagues.
While the state government has not tried to prohibit carrying during the pandemic, gun sellers complained when officials briefly shuttered gun shops as “non-essential” businesses.
Armed protesters, including organized militias and extremist groups, gathered publicly for weeks protesting state-imposed business closures.
While the House vote broke largely across party lines, some Democrats joined their GOP colleagues. state Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, who has repeatedly voted with Republicans to protest Wolf’s declarations, backed the bill, suggesting governors could one day invoke the existing emergency power.
“We’ve already seen how this governor has used his power to micromanage our lives — power that I voted against — and I’m concerned about what could happen in another emergency,” Burns wrote.
While tens of thousands of central Pennsylvania voters requested and cast mail-in ballots in this month’s primary election, local voters still prefer traveling to a polling place, according to state data trickling out in recent days.
In more than 20 counties, more voters cast mail-in ballots for the June 2 races than in-person ones. But around Altoona, the numbers are lower.
More than 14,000 Blair County voters — or 58.2 percent of the total — cast in-person ballots, according to data from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. In Bedford, 64.1 percent voted in person, as well as 56.9 percent in Cambria, 65 percent in Huntingdon and 67.5 percent in Clearfield counties.
Only Centre County broke the local trend, with more than 60 percent of voters casting their ballots by mail.
While rural areas appear to have adopted mail-in voting less enthusiastically, even the local numbers represent a sea change. Before this year, only a handful of absentee ballots could be mailed in for specific reasons, meaning tens of thousands of local voters have taken advantage of the new system.
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