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Donald Trump transition team considering more changes to H-1B visa program

The incoming Trump administration may be considering more specific changes than previously known to the H-1B visa program that allows US companies to hire high-skilled foreign workers and that, according to critics, has led to loss of American jobs.

world Updated: Jan 13, 2017 09:32 IST
Yashwant Raj
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The incoming Trump administration may be considering more specific changes than previously known to the H-1B visa program that allows US companies to hire high-skilled foreign workers and that, according to critics, has led to loss of American jobs.

One is to scrap the lottery system used to distribute visas under this temporary programme – 65,000 abroad, and 20,000 to foreign students in the US every year – and, two, make the application fee prohibitively expensive.

These proposals were discussed at a meeting president-elect Donald Trump held with Silicon Valley CEOs and leaders in January, called the Tech Summit, according to Reuters news agency that first reported them on Thursday.

Details of the meeting – what was discussed and who said what – were never fully announced and have been pieced together by reporters from accounts related by those who attended and thus could not immediately be verified with the transition team.

Read | Bill against H1B visa back in US Congress: How will it affect India’s IT sector

Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for the post of attorney general, has assured lawmakers about taking steps to push legislative measures to curb the misuse of H-1B and L1 visas.

“It’s simply wrong to think that we’re in a totally open world and that any American with a job can be replaced if somebody in the world is willing to take a job for less pay,” Sessions told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing.

Indian tech companies, which have been on tenterhooks since a bill backing key changes to eligibility requirements for H-1B visa exemptions was reintroduced in the Congress last week, brushed off their worries on Thursday as the Nifty crossed the key 8,400-level, led mainly by IT, power and banking stocks.

Trump, who has used H-1B visas for his own businesses, has said his first priority is to prevent the loss of American jobs. He will order investigations into the abuse of the H-1B and other visa programmes within the first 100 days in office.

Sessions too is an outspoken critic of H-1Bs, and, as senator, moved legislations to reduce the annual intake by 20,000 from the current 85,000 and make hirings expensive by removing the wage arbitrage.

Read | As Trump readies to take over, Indian IT firms in huddle over H-1B visa plan

Both proposals discussed at the Tech Summit could lead to similar outcomes.

Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller, who, according to Reuters suggested scrapping the lottery system, earlier worked for Sessions and is a strident critic of H-1Bs.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which runs the H-1B programme, began using a lottery system – officially called “computer-generated random selection process” – since 2007 to deal with demand that far outstrips availability.

It received 236,000 petitions for 2017 for the 85,000 H-1B visas on offer within less than a week of announcing the start of the process. USCIS tags every application with a number and runs them through the random algorithm.

Miller has suggested ending this system. And a possible replacement could be a system that gives priority to petitions for the highest paying jobs, which would typically disadvantage those bringing foreigners to cut costs.

That’s where Indian IT operations in the US come in – such as TCS, Infosys, Wipro and scores of others smaller operations. As major recipients of H-1Bs, they have been are waiting for the new administration with a sense of impending doom.

Read | Infosys, TCS, Wipro stocks in focus as US plans tougher H1-B visa norms

The second proposal discussed at the Tech Summit – to increase the cost of applications for major companies to discourage bulk filing – came from Trump himself, who, according to Reuters, asked the tech leaders if anyone had an objection. No one did.

Increasing the application fee would be a problem for India, which is likely to view it as an anti-free trade move. It has already taken the US to the WTO over last year’s hike in the fee for H-1Bs and a similar programme for intra-company transfers.

While the H-1B and other such programmes are seen as an immigration issue in the US, India sees them as a trade issue and considers direct and indirect curbs as anti-free trade.

“Right now it is unclear if the H-1B visas will see a curb. We have been facing challenges with H-1B visas from last year but we have kept dialogues open with the US government, making them aware of the CSR initiatives that our companies are taking,” a Nasscom spokesperson said.

“One of such initiatives was by TCS, which donated $35 million to Carnegie Mellon University,” the spokesperson said, adding this money will be invested in bridging the skilled labour problem in the US.

“President-elect Trump realises India is a friend as our companies have helped in creating 411,000 direct and indirect jobs. They are training people in US divisions to make their life better,” the spokesperson said, adding there is no disparity between the salaries of Indian and US employees.

Read | Donald Trump in White House: Now, what will happen to H-1B visas?