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Recent Changes to the H1B Visa in the US

The US has been at the front of the news when it comes to immigration reforms, from a proposed border wall with Mexico, an immigration ban on certain Muslim countries and overall tighter border controls.  Some of this is ‘security’ related, but the deeper concern is that foreign workers and immigrants are depleting the US job market for US residents.

These steps to restrict work visas in the US will have a real impact on US companies, who often complain that certain technical and scientific skill sets are not available in the US work force.  This same situation is being mirrored in other countries as well such as Australia and Singapore, with tension between domestic business interests and immigration policies.

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H1B Visa Under Fire

Along those lines, one of the express priorities of the Trump administration is to bring reform to the H1B work visa for ‘specialty occupations’, impacting both US and foreign companies that hire foreign nationals.  Each year, 85,000 H1B visas are awarded from a pool of over 200,000 applicants, through a lottery system that has favored large Indian outsourcing companies that are sending foreign contract workers to the US in the IT field.

There is debate whether the program is as widely abused as some say, but to be fair there are documented examples of US companies replacing US workers with cheaper foreign talent, and forcing the outgoing workers to train their replacements.

These practices led President Trump to pledge H1B program reform, and since he took office a number of changes have already taken place at the administrative level.  Members of Congress are also getting on board, with several new pieces of legislation being considered that are designed to overhaul the program.

Impact on Companies in the US

The most apparent impact is on IT companies in Silicon Valley, who hire technically skilled foreign employees.  Now, they are facing tighter controls on work visas, and instead looking to open satellite offices in nearby Canada to bring in the staff they need.  Existing H1B employees may also undergo increased scrutiny when looking to transfer employers or extend their current visa beyond the initial three years.

Actions Taken To-Date

Until there is a new law changing the H1B program, all reform must come at an administrative level under current rules.  Here are a few of the steps already taken:

Executive Order: “Buy American, Hire American: President Trump in an Executive Order instructed the agencies in charge of the H1B program to eliminate abuses, give priority to the highest wage positions and decrease the number of IT contract workers awarded visas.

Entry Level Computer Programmers Excluded:  Specifically, entry level computer programmers, who comprised nearly 20% of the previous H1B visa recipients, will now be completely excluded from the program according the USCIS.

Increased Vetting of Petitions:  There is a new level of vetting required for H1B applicants, including providing social media handles, all travel history and contact information for the past five years.

Spousal Visas Curbed:  Spouses of H1B visa holders may no longer be allowed to remain in the US with the H-4 visa, a major blow to families wishing to accompany the worker.

Proposed Actions

Most of the proposed bills in Congress are focused on several primary reforms to eliminate what is seen as “cheap foreign labor”:

Raising the Minimum Salary Level:  There are several bills that aim to increase H1B salaries to a minimum of $100,000, eliminating contract workers who can now be hired at $60,000 annually.

New Qualification Standards based on Experience and Skills:  Visas would only be awarded to those with a minimum of three-years of experience, with priority given to Master’s degree holders or higher.

Merit Based Visa Standards:  These measures would be designed to limit H1B visas to the “best and brightest” at the discretion of the immigration agencies and officers reviewing petitions.

Limiting the Participation of Outsourcing Firms:  Companies that have more than 50% of their employees with current H1B visas would be excluded from using the program completely.

Naturally, not all of these reforms will happen, but it is certain that it will be more difficult to obtain an H1B work visa in future years.  US companies that rely on foreign talent will be affected, and may be forced to take alternative steps.  One potential result is the increased use of remote workers from other countries, especially those that have already gained experience in the US.

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