President Donald Trump’s executive order signed Tuesday aims to end “fraud and abuse” of a temporary visa programme for high-skilled foreigners and ensure only the best and the brightest benefit from it, but some are warning against going too far.
Once Tuesday’s executive order becomes effective, American companies willing to pay top dollar for the best talent from around the world will benefit. Critics of the H-1B visa say the programme has helped outsourcing firms, mostly from India, crowd out global talent.
Nasscom, a body representing Indian information technology industry, lashed out in a statement saying the “current campaign to discredit our sector is driven by persistent myths, such as the ideas that H-1B visa holders are ‘cheap labour’ and ‘displace American workers’”.
In the US, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank, and fwd.us, a body representing IT giants Facebook, Google and others, cautioned this order should not lead to making legal immigration harder and expensive.
The US grants 85,000 H-1B temporary visas to high-skilled foreigners every year — 65,000 hired from abroad and 20,000 from those enrolled in US colleges. Because of the high demand, a lottery system is used to pick qualifying petitions.
“Right now, H1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery -- and that’s wrong,” Trump said at the signing of the executive order at a factory in Wisconsin. “Instead they should be given to the most-skilled and highest-paid applicants, and they should never, ever be used to replace Americans.”
Called the “Buy American, Hire American Executive Order”, it also mandates government agencies to review and change rules that come in the way of “Buy American” policies, Trrump’s campaign promise to re-energise local manufacturing.
On H-1B, which would be of immediate concern to India and Indians, the order said it would be the policy of the administration to rigorously enforce and administer laws regarding foreign workers “in order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests”.
The order directs the departments of state, justice, labor and homeland security (of which the US Citizenship and Immigration Services that runs the H-1B programmes is a part) to propose new rules and guidelines to protect American workers from “fraud and abuse”.
Also, the four federal agencies will “suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries”.
While the intent to end fraud and abuse and attract only the best and brightest was not contested by anyone, the order was greeted with scepticism in many quarters, specially in the US tech industry and in India, which is likely to be impacted.
Information Technology Innovation Foundation said in a statement it welcomes proposals to make H-1B visa selection process merit-based the efforts to root out abuse, “as we continue to welcome highly qualified STEM workers”.
In support of its argument, the foundation cited an earlier study it did that showed “46% of the most important US innovators are immigrants or the children of immigrants”.
And Todd Schulte, head of Facebook-baked fwd.us, said in a post on Twitter: “We hope any changes … are not part of any broad effort to make legal immigration harder, more expensive.”
Critics of the programme have argued that the H-1Bs were being used by outsourcing firms to bring in low-skilled workers on low wages — who land up displacing Americans — and not the best and brightest as was originally envisioned.
An analysis released by Associated Press on Tuesday showed computer science hires – who make up three-quarters of the H-1B recipients receive about 9% percent less, on average, than U.S. workers with similar positions.
Foreign workers, the study went on to show, in non-computer science occupations receive an average of 58% more.
The US has already moved on addressing this issue in part by announcing earlier this year a new set of guidelines for those qualifying H-1B — a computer programme degree with no additional qualification will not be acceptable as “speciality occupation”.
Outsourcing companies are accused of flooding the USCIS with applications much in excess of their need, for relatively basic-level skills, in the hope of landing more of them through the lottery system, crowding out American companies.
The timeline for the H-1B-related review and changes was not clear in the executive order, which merely said they should be wrapped up “as soon as practicable”.
But the administration has already started making changes, and didn’t wait for the order. It has suspended premium processing of applications, for instance, changed the guideline for defining “speciality occupation” and has issued warning against abuse.