ZEITGUIDE TO THE OTHER IMMIGRATION DEBATE
The Trump administration’s second try at banning people from six countries from entering the U.S.—now blocked by two federal judges—has been the big immigration story this week.
But there’s another immigration issue percolating with larger ramifications for businesses, especially the tech industry. On April 3, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will begin accepting 2018 petitions for H-1B visas, the visas that entitle businesses to employ foreign workers with specialized skills for up to six years.
There’s one difference this year, though. The option for 15-day “premium processing” of visas has been suspended. The USCIS says the change will help it get through a backlog, but some (including many leading tech firms) see this slowdown as a step toward weakening—or potentially eliminating—the H-1B program. Regular processing can take six months or longer.
Many H-1B petitions come from tech firms like IBM, Microsoft and Google, who argue that there are not enough sufficiently skilled Americans to fill these jobs.
The greatest users of such visas, however, are India-based IT companies, who have often used the program to connect American companies with Indian tech workers willing to work here for lower salaries. While minimum market-based wages already exist for all H-1B positions, some companies avoid these requirements by presenting positions as part-time, then employing individuals full-time at part-time wages. To curb such abuses, lawmakers have proposed reforms such as more robust full-time minimum salary requirements for H1B applicants. Other suggested reforms include giving preference to those educated in the U.S. or requiring companies to prove they were unable to find suitable American candidates.
Meantime, companies are bracing for other changes the Trump administration might seek by way of executive order, including raising the cost of applying for a visa and the reversal of a rule put in under President Obama that allowed spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in the United States.
Such changes would hardly represent the first H-1B rollback. In 2000, the U.S. issued 195,000 H1Bs; then in 2004 the H-1B Visa Reform Act slashed that number to 85,000, where it remains today.
“There are more applications every year for same number of spots,” ZEITGUIDE friend and immigration attorney Steve Maggi told us. “It discourages companies from taking part in that process.” Last year saw nearly 240,000 petitions.
For the roughly two-thirds of applicants who lose out, Plan B isn’t as simple as hiring an American to fill that role. It may mean less growth for small firms that can’t compete with Google or Facebook when hiring programmers or engineers. Or it may push companies to relocate whole teams overseas.
Once such jobs leave the U.S., of course, so do those workers’ income and payroll taxes—as well as much hope of filling that job with an American worker in the future.