The number of petitions the US received for the high-skill H-1B visas in 2017 dropped unexpectedly, and sharply, for the first time in four years amid speculation that it was due to the Trump administration’s hostile measures and Indian tech companies scaling down applications for fear of reprisals.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which runs the H-1B visa programme, announced on Monday it had received 199,000 applications in 2017 for the 2018 cycle. This was 37,000 less than the 236,000 in 2016, ending a rising trend.
The USCIS got 233,000 applications in 2015 and 172,500 in 2014.
“It is a significant drop,” said George Ganey, an immigration lawyer in Maryland, who was expecting the numbers to rise because of the improving economy. “There is no doubt that it has been caused at least in part by President Trump’s election.”
Mukesh Aghi, president of the US-India Business Council, a trade body, attributed the fall to “much lower petitions from Indian companies”. He didn’t know by how much, but industry sources said it could be by as much as 20% or 30%.
Indian tech companies are among the highest recipients of H-1B visas and have been accused of “gaming the system” by filing a huge number of applications, apparently much in excess of their need, to crowd out American counterparts.
They have been under increasing scrutiny in recent years, and more so since Trump’s election, with the new administration threatening raids and inspections to prevent alleged abuse of the programme to displace American workers.
The US grants 65,000 H-1B visas every year to highly skilled foreign workers and 20,000 to foreigners enrolled in advanced studies in American colleges and universities, subject to a congressionally mandated annual cap of 85,000.
Given the number of applications received every cycle, much in excess of the cap, USCIS began using a lottery system – officially called a “computer-generated random selection process” – in 2007 to deal with a demand that far outstrips availability.
The agency announced the closure of the process for 2018 on Monday with the lottery that has been in the crosshairs of the programme’s critics who believe it’s being abused to outsource American jobs and to offshore them eventually.
Trump and some of his close advisers and aides are among those who believe the H-1B programme is being used to steal American jobs and have suggested ambitious plans to overhaul the system and fix it, including an executive order.
That order, leaked copies of which were circulated among media outlets in February, never came. But the Trump administration did tighten the screws through a series of technical, less sensational measures that never made it to the front page.
Just days before opening the application process for 2018 this April — the cycle starts a year before — the USCIS suspended premium processing of H-1Bs used by companies who want to know the fate of their applications immediately for a fee. That threw off a lot of companies, who did not want to wait.
More significantly for Indians and Indian tech companies, the USCIS reconfigured the definition of “speciality occupation”, a qualifying criterion for H-1Bs, the weekend before the start of the much anticipated 2018 process.
Computer programmers, its new guidelines said, did not qualify automatically any longer. And that ruled out a large number of low-grade H-1B applicants who would have barely qualified earlier but were definitely barred now.
Chirag Patel, an immigration lawyer who was taken aback by the new numbers, attributed them to “the lack of premium processing…or maybe a hiring shift to more US citizens or permanent resident| workers due to Trump being President”.