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US to temporarily suspend special payment programme for H-1B visas

”Premium processing”, used by firms like Microsoft and Facebook, allows a company to request an expedited decision on its petition for a foreign worker’s visa at an extra fee of $1,225 per application.

world Updated: Mar 15, 2017 07:47 IST
Yashwant Raj
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that in order to clear a backlog of regular H-1B visa applications, it is suspending for six months a programme.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that in order to clear a backlog of regular H-1B visa applications, it is suspending for six months a programme. (Reuters File Photo)

In a significant development for Silicon Valley and Indian IT firms and engineers, the Donald Trump administration on Friday suspended “premium processing” of H-1B visas — 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 extra fee.

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.

The suspension comes into effect on April 3 — the day the US begins accepting 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.

This move could severely impact the intake of foreign workers by the firms, may add to the confusion that already exists in the sector because of the administration’s stated plans to overhaul the H-1B programme, and, at least for the time being, force them to hire locally.

Calling it a “serious” development, immigration lawyer Chirag Patel said it “will be disruptive to business … as it well 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, review or reform of the H-1B visa programme that has been under discussion by 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 US colleges and universities. Critics of the programme, such as Sessions, have argued that it is used by American companies to replace local workers with foreigners at lower wages.

New Delhi, which has argued that it is a trade issue and helps American companies remain competitive, has been closely following these discussions because Indian companies like Infosys, TCS and Wipro use the programme widely for their businesses in the US. Foreign secretary S Jaishankar and commerce secretary Rita Teaotia raised these concerns in multiple meetings with senior officials of the administration and on Capitol Hill this past week.