US proposes changes to H-1B visa programme, move to hit Indian IT companies

Indian companies and IT professionals have been major beneficiaries of the programme cornering more than 70% of the 65,000 visas that the US grants to foreigners hired abroad every year and an additional 20,000 to foreign students passing out of US colleges and universities with advanced degrees
US President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, October 17, 2018.(AFP File Photo)
US President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, October 17, 2018.(AFP File Photo)
Updated on Oct 20, 2018 01:31 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Washington | ByYashwant Raj

The Trump administration has reiterated once again its plans to redefine “speciality occupation” for skilled foreign workers who US companies seek to hire under the non-immigrant H-1B visa programme that has been immensely popular with Indian IT companies and professionals.

The department of homeland security (DHS), which oversee the agency that runs the programme, has also expressed the intention to implement other measures that the Trump administration has been considering to ensure, as the US president Donald Trump has said, Americans have the first right to American jobs.

Indian companies and IT professionals have been major beneficiaries of the programme cornering more than 70% of the 65,000 visas that the US grants to foreigners hired abroad every year and an additional 20,000 to foreign students passing out of US colleges and universities with advanced degrees.

The DHS proposes “to revise the definition of specialty occupation to increase focus on obtaining the best and the brightest foreign nationals” via the H-1B programme, the agency said in the Fall 2018 Unified Agenda, a twice-yearly summary and plans of the federal government, published Wednesday.

It also proposes to “revise the definition of employment and employer-employee relationship to better protect US workers and wages. In addition, DHS will propose additional requirements designed to ensure employers pay appropriate wages to H-1B visa holders”.

The purpose of these changes, it added, was to “ensure that H-1B visas are awarded only to individuals who will be working in a job which meets the statutory definition of specialty occupation. In addition, these changes are intended to ensure that the H-1B program supplements the US workforce and strengthens US worker protections”.

Among other proposals, and reiterated, in the Unified Agenda, was the elimination of work authorization for spouses of H-1B holders who are waiting for their Green Card (permanent residency, which is a step away from citizenship), a programme that also mainly benefits Indian workers.

Another change proposed in the agenda, and slated for early implementation, is to require employers planning to hire cap-mandated H-1B workers — 85,000 — to register with authorities before hand. And only those picked will then go on to submit completed H-1B applications.

Critics of the H-1B programme have long argued that it has used to displace American workers with cheaper foreign workers. Agreeing with them, president Trump, who had himself used it in his businesses before, has ordered its review and measures to stop its abuse and fraud.

Redefining “speciality occupation” to raise the bar for those eligible for H-1Bs, raising salaries for foreign workers and some other measures, it has been argued, would force American companies, including local affiliates of Indians IT giants such as TCS, Infosys and Wipro, to go with American workers

The Trump administration first proposed the redefinition in the Unified Agenda for Fall 2017, which was released around the same time last year, using the same language. The target date for implementing it was October 2018, which the administration missed, without ascribing any reasons for it.

The proposal as reiterated in the Spring Unified Agenda, the document is published twice every year, with a new target date of January 2019. And now the proposal in into its third iteration with the stated implementation goal of August 2019. It could even be announced before, if it’s ready.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the DHS agency that directly administers the H-1B programme, refused to discuss timelines or proposals. “USCIS can’t comment on alleged proposals until they are made public,” an official said on background. “We continue to review all employment-based visa programs, including H-1B. Any proposed regulatory changes will not be final until the rulemaking process is complete and the published rule takes effect.”

USCIS’s Michael Bars, a spokesperson, said, “The administration has been relentlessly pursuing merit-based policy and regulatory immigration reforms, including a thorough review of H-1Bs and employment based visa programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible in fulfillment of the President’s Buy American, Hire American Executive Order.”

Changing the definition “has great potential to reform the program”, said Sarah Pierce, an expert with the Migration Policy Institute, a leading US think tank.

“However,” she added, “there are a lot of factors in these definitions that are set by statute (the Immigration and Nationality Act, the overarching law), which the administration cannot change without the approval of Congress.” And that will make the proposed change a long and complex process.

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