US may overhaul visa programme for foreign workers

Replacement for H-1B could favour visas for ‘specialty’ jobs that pay highest salaries

H-1B visas have most commonly been used by the technology industry. Photograph: iStock

H-1B visas have most commonly been used by the technology industry. Photograph: iStock


US president-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has been actively considering ways to revamp a temporary visa programme used to bring foreign workers to the US to fill high-skilled jobs, according to sources.

Possibilities for reforming the distribution of H-1B visas, which are used largely by the tech industry, were discussed at a meeting last month with chief executives of tech companies at Trump Tower, said two sources.

Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser for Mr Trump, has proposed scrapping the existing lottery system used to award the visas. A possible replacement system would favour visa petitions for jobs that pay the highest salaries, according to the sources.

H-1B visas are intended for foreign nationals in “speciality” occupations that generally require higher education, which according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) includes, but is not limited to, scientists, engineers or computer programmers. The government awards 65,000 every year.

Companies say they use them to recruit top talent, but a majority of the visas are awarded to outsourcing firms, sparking criticism by sceptics that those firms use the visas to fill lower-level information technology jobs.

Critics also say the lottery system benefits outsourcing firms that flood the system with mass applications.

Outsourcing firms

The H-1B visa programme tends to be more critical to outsourcing firms than US tech firms. For instance, more than 60 per cent of the US employees of Indian outsourcing firm Infosys are H-1B holders, and the company in its annual report has cited an increase in visa costs as among factors that could hurt its profitability.

The top 10 recipients of H-1B visas in 2015 were all outsourcing firms, according to US government data compiled by the IEEE-USA, a professional organisation representing US engineers. Sixty-five per cent of H-1B petitions approved in the 2014 fiscal year went to tech workers, mostly from India, according to USCIS.

In several high-profile cases, American workers were asked to train H-1B holders to do their jobs before being laid off themselves.

The idea advanced by Mr Miller in the tech meeting has also been pushed by the IEEE-USA. Mr Miller previously served as a staffer for US senator Jeff Sessions, Mr Trump’s pick for attorney general, who has been an outspoken critic of abuses of the H-1B program.

Mr Trump, who has applied for H-1B visas to bring in foreign workers to his own businesses, sent mixed messages about the programme on the campaign trail. He assailed it for taking jobs from US workers, but during a Republican debate last March said he was “softening” his position “because we have to have talented people in this country”.

He later issued a statement on his website saying he would “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labour programme”.

Trump businesses, such as Trump National Golf Club and Trump Model Management, have received permission to bring in more than two dozen foreign employees on H-1B visas since 2011, according to Department of Labour data.

Middle ground

During the meeting last month in New York, the president-elect seemed to be searching for middle ground, and members of his transition team raised specific proposals, the two sources said. A third source familiar with the talks said the Trump team has also discussed the plan to change the lottery system internally.

Present at the meeting were more than a dozen top tech executives from some of the country’s largest tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Apple.

Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said technology companies need to be able to recruit talent from abroad when necessary. Mr Trump seemed open to modifying the H-1B programme, the sources said. He said he wanted to stop “bad people” from immigrating to the US, not “great people,” according to one account of the meeting.

Among proposals the group discussed was raising the cost of applications from large companies as a way to discourage bulk filing. Asked by Mr Trump if they would object to that, none of the tech chiefs said they would.

“In our view, the president-elect is not hostile to H-1B visas,” said one of the sources familiar with discussions at the meeting.

While Mr Trump could initiate some changes to the visa programme with executive action, significant shifts would likely need to go through a lengthy formal rulemaking process, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration expert at Cornell Law School. Major changes would likely be subject to court challenges, he said.

Other reforms, such as changing the visa cap or offering more green cards to high-tech workers, could require Congressional action, Prof Yale-Loehr said.

A wide variety of companies, including Thomson Reuters , use the H-1B visa programme to bring in employees from abroad.