Any step to restrict the H-1B visa program may adversely affect Silicon Valley, which sources many of its top executives and skilled workers from India, and hurt the job prospects of thousands of IT professionals looking to work in the US.
Jeff Sessions, United States president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, has said he would be pushing legislative measures to curb the “misuse” of H-1B and L1 work visas.
His comments follow the re-introduction of a bill last week in US Congress backing key changes in the H1-B programme, which allows skilled workers from countries like India to fill high-tech jobs in the US, by two lawmakers who claim that the proposed amendments would help crack down on “work visa abuse”.
H-1B visas admit 65,000 workers and another 20,000 graduate student workers each year and are assigned through a lottery once a year by Unites States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The fear of a tighter immigration policy under Trump was expected, and the move, if any, will have an adverse impact on the $110 billion IT industry, as the US continues to be its biggest market.
Silicon Valley depends on H1-B
Silicon Valley relies heavily on hiring talent from countries like India, a practice made possible through the H-1B visa program for specialised workers. Data from US Citizenship and Immigration Service shows that the tech sector is by far the biggest beneficiary of the program, taking more than 64% of the 315,000+ H-1B petitions in 2014.
According to the National Foundation for American Policy, more than half of US “unicorns” — startups that are valued at $1 billion or more — have at least one immigrant founder.
Some of the tech sector’s most established companies have Indian immigrants helming the ship, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. And foreigners have filled the middle ranks of many tech companies as well, especially in technical jobs.
Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business told Wired magazine in an interview that the Silicon Valley may not see an immediate immigration-related impact since demand for these workers far exceeds supply at the moment.
In November, the Internet Association, an umbrella body for internet corporations representing Google, Facebook and Amazon, among others, had addressed president-elect Trump in an open letter, laying out the industry’s stance on key policy areas.
Among other things, the letter called for immigration reform that would “allow more high-skilled graduates and workers to stay in the United States and contribute to our economy” – a notion that runs counter to attorney general nominee Sessions.
FWD.us, a lobbying group backed by industry leaders such Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Marissa Mayer, is pushing the US government for reform that makes it easier for H-1B visa recipients to become US citizens. Currently, the visa lasts three years, with a three-year extension allowed after that.
Indians the biggest beneficiary
Indian citizens receive almost 70% of all the H-1B visas issued worldwide, according to a statement by US Assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, Michele Bond.
According to data from 2014, 86% of the total H1B visas issued that year for technology firms was used to hire IT professionals from India.