In a significant development for Silicon Valley and Indian IT firms and engineers, the Trump administration on Friday suspended “premium processing” of H-1Bs, a fast lane used by US companies to circumvent long waiting periods to get their petitions for high-skilled foreign workers approved, or rejected, for an additional fee.
It could severely impact the intake of foreign workers by these companies, add to the confusion that already exists in the sector because of the Trump administration’s stated plans to overhaul the H-1B programme, and, at least for the time being, force them to hire locally for now.
The announcement came just as a team of senior Indian officials led by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar wrapped up a four-day engagement with the Trump administration during which they raised the issue of H-1B visas and India’s concerns multiple times.
They argued, Jaishankar told reporters on Friday, it “actually helps the American economy to be more competitive and if the Trump administration intention is to bring back American companies to America and attract more foreign investment in America, in the near term then it would be important that the growing America remain competitive”. Asked about their response, he said, there was a “degree of understanding”.
Rita Teaotia, the commerce secretary, said the administration gave the impression “it would be part of the overall immigration package”.
The new order also came in a week of heightened legislative interest in the issue, with two new bills. One of them, which is co-sponsored by Indian-American Ro Khanna, seeks to prevent the “fraud and abuse” of the H-1B and L-1 (for intra-company transfer to the US) programmes, as critics of the programme have held for a while. And the other seeks to dissuade US call centres from relocating overseas.
The suspension of H-1B “premium processing” goes into effect on April 3, the day the US begins accepting new petitions for 2018 and will remain in force for six months.
The US Customs and Immigration Services, which runs this programme, said this was being done to “reduce overall H-1B processing times”, by clearing up the backlog built over time because of heavy demand for this visa.
Under “premium processing”, a company can request an expedited decision on its petition for an extra fee of $1,225 per application within 15 days and won’t have to wait for months to find out in the regular course. It is used widely by large companies such as Facebook and Microsoft, sometimes for all their applications.
Calling it a “serious” development, Chirag Patel, an immigration lawyer, said it “will be disruptive to business… as it will affect timing regarding new hires, continuing hires and overall project planning and placement”.
He added that it “may indirectly make employers who are using this option to look to hire more US workers, at least in the interim”.
It was not immediately clear if this was a part of the rollback or review or reform of the H-1B visa programme that has been under discussion by President Trump and several members of his team, most significantly attorney general Jeff Sessions.
The US grants 65,000 H-1B visas annually to foreign workers hired abroad and an additional 20,000 to foreign students enrolled in the country’s colleges and universities.
Critics of the program, such as Sessions, have argued that it is used by American companies to replace local workers with foreigners on lower wages.
New Delhi, which has argued it is a trade issue and helps American companies remain competitive, has been following these discussions in the Trump administration very closely because Indian companies such as Infosys, TCS and Wipro use the programme widely for their businesses in the US.