Trump puts “Americans first” by unveiling new H-1B visa rules

The new set of regulations requires companies to make "real" offers to US citizens before seeking to bring in foreigners

Donald Trump
Donald Trump has refused to appear for a virtual debate in Miami, Florida on October 15 | File Photo

The Trump administration on Tuesday introduced a new set of H-1B visa rules for highly skilled workers, which allow up to 85,000 immigrants in the US annually.

The change, as technology firms say, is an “effort to circumvent the court order” and meant to pander to a section of American voters with US presidential elections in sight.

Last week, US District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco granted a preliminary injunction to block the government from ending the H-1B visa program. The US Chamber of Commerce and technology trade groups had supported the court order.

Indians and Indian companies are the major beneficiaries of the number of H-1B work permits issued each year. Hence, the change in H1B regulations will have a deep impact on them.

The US administration, meanwhile, has maintained the change of rules “would be better for American workers”.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose main job is to secure the US from the threats it faces, has made a move aimed at tightening immigration under President Donald Trump, who has consistently advocated the need to end the H-1B program “for the larger good of American population”.

The new regulations (details of which are not available yet) would narrow the definition of “specialty occupation” which according to DHS “allowed companies to game the system.”

The ambitious yet conservative plan, to be implemented after a 60-day comment period, also seeks to require US companies to make “real” offers to US residents before seeking to bring in foreigners.

Silicon Valley firms have always used the H1B visa program to bring in engineers and other skilled workers, mostly from India. The Trump administration has argued that the existing program has depressed salaries in some professions.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said, “Economic security is an integral part of homeland security. Put simply, economic security is homeland security. In response, we must do everything we can within the bounds of the law to make sure the American worker is put first,” said in a statement.

TechNet, a trade group which includes many Silicon Valley firms, has firmly opposed the new rules. “The administration is flouting the court’s ruling by issuing different rules to try to obtain the result it wants. It only harms America’s ability to recover from the pandemic during this critical time,” TechNet president Linda Moore said.

How do the new rules affect Indians?

H-1B visas are most commonly used by Indian and Chinese companies and are approved for a period of three years for a person, but many visa holders change employers to extend their US stay.

The Department of Homeland Security is yet to announce the specifications of the change in H-1B visa rules, but it definitely means that companies and recruitment agencies that hire workers on H-1B visas will have a difficult time to prove to the immigration agencies that US residents are not capable of taking up the jobs on offer.

Each year, the US administration issues 85,000 H-1B work permits, of which 65,000 are for people with specialty occupations, while the rest 20,000 are reserved for those foreign workers who have earned a masters or higher university degree in the US. Indians and Indian companies are the major beneficiaries of the number of H-1B work permits issued each year.

As of April 1, 2020, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had received about 2.5 lakh H-1B work visa applications. Indians had applied for as many as 1.84 lakh or 67 per cent of the total H-1B work visas.

Now the Department of Homeland Security plans to modify the definition of what would constitute a “specialty occupation”, which means that the 65,000 visas issued every year would be brought down significantly.

Indian IT firms like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL and others have maintained that they have reduced their dependence on H-1B visas, but a cut in the overall quota of H-1B visa workers would mean they would either have to shell out more money to hire local talent or pay more to the existing H-1B work visa holders.

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The visa rules have often been flayed for allowing cheap labour in the US at the expense of its local workforce. Donald Trump, after taking charge as the President of US in 2016, hinted that the visa regime would be overhauled to ensure the system was no longer “gamed by companies” which pay less than the annual average salary paid to US workers.

Do the new rules apply to fresh H1B applicants or to the existing ones as well? This will be known only after the Department of Homeland Security declares the final norms. By then, the relaxations announced by the Trump administration in August would be applicable.

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