Amidst the government shutdown over preventing Mexican immigrants from entering the US, president Donald Trump on Friday said he is planning changes to temporary workers’ H-1B visas that would create simplicity, certainty and even a possibility for receiving American citizenship.
“H1-B holders in the US can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship. We want to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the US,” the president said in a tweet.
The White House has not offered clarity on what Trump means by a “potential path to citizenship” for H-1B visa holders, who are already eligible to be sponsored for legal permanent residency by their employers. But they usually have to wait for a decade until they get a Green Card at present. It is also not clear if Trump intends to introduce changes besides and beyond the new rules issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in December.
What is the H-1B visa?
According to the existing rule, H-1B work visa is valid for three years and can be renewed for another three years. The applications are accepted via a lottery system, with an annual limit of 65,000 visas each fiscal year, as mandated by the Congress.
H-1B workers must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Competition is tough for temporary visas, especially with the cap of 65,000. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security informed hitting the limit on the number of H-1Bs it could issue, by the first week of April.
Another 20,000 visas are exempt for the cap and reserved just for foreign students who hold advanced (master’s or above) degrees from American higher education institutions.
The USCIS in December released a proposal to give precedence to the highest paid and most skilled/educated foreign workers in the H-1B visa intake process. All applicants including those eligible for the advanced degree exemption will now be subject to the regular cap of 65,000 first. After that, the USCIS would select from the remaining applicants to fill the degree cap.
This means that the lottery phase will go ahead without a full petition; submission of supporting documents will come after the random selections are completed.
Companies employing H-1B workers will have to pre-register with USCIS during a designated registration period.
“The proposed rule would reverse the selection order and count all registrations or petitions towards the number projected as needed to reach the H-1B cap first,” the DHS said about the proposal, adding that it is an alleged attempt to curb the annual overload that the USCIS faces.
The registration process will also be made online for modernisation.
According to another notification issued by the DHS last year, the US administration is also determined to revoke work authorisation to certain categories of H-4 visa holders. H-4 visas are issued to the spouses of H-1B visa holders, a significantly large number of whom are high-skilled professionals from India. Issued by the Barack Obama administration in 2015, it helps H-1B spouses gain employment in the US,
Trump and immigration
While the Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads over the wall on the US-Mexico border, Trump’s stance with respect to immigrants is foregrounded in the debate over visas as well.
The president typically depicts undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers fleeing from persecution in their countries to the US as criminals and terrorists, while being largely in praise of H-1B workers, a majority of whom are from India, acknowledging the role they play in American business sectors. He has also sought to limit legal immigration several time to foster his America First policy and ordered a reform of the US visa program in April 2017, aiming solely at the educated and highly skilled workers.
According to immigration activists and lawyers, the proposed changes will tighten the entry criteria, set a higher bar for visa extensions, and threaten foreign workers who demand equal pay despite the booming economy. Many believe this is being done to increase the number of H-1B holders with advanced degrees by 16%, to ensure “more of the best and brightest workers from around the world come to America”.
Cracking down on the popular visa programme to implement Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” strategy will take a toll on Indian workers as much as it would on the American tech sector.
It will also filter out more bachelor’s degree holders from the programme, while raising the probability of more US master’s degree holders occupying most of the total available slots in the first wave. According to official data, the number of new international students enrolling at American universities and colleges went down by almost 7% in 2017, owing to stringent student visa applications compounded by anti-immigrant messages.
“By increasing the chances of H-1B visas for people with advanced degrees from US institutions, the proposed H-1B pre-registration rule will shut out Indian H-1B holders with good bachelor’s degrees from Indian universities who could potentially contribute to the US,” tweeted US Immigration Attorney Cyrus Mehta in December.
Many US-based business enterprises have been experiencing staffing issues since the GOP began to tamper with the H-1B visa programme. They have been gradually shifting base to other countries, like Canada and Budapest, where workers have the hard skills they require, and immigration policies are much more relaxed.
The 2019 visa season will look very different if these changes are implemented.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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