- The federal government announced Tuesday it’s suspending premium processing for applicants for the popular H-1B visa program.
- The suspension was meant to help federal officials reduce the overall visa processing times.
- The Trump administration has frequently targeted the H-1B visa program in his effort to curb legal immigration.
For the second year in a row, the Trump administration has suspended a program that allows skilled foreign workers to fast-track their applications for a highly coveted US visa.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency announced Tuesday that “premium processing” for the H-1B visa will be suspended through September 10, meaning applicants and their prospective US employers are temporarily barred from paying an extra $US1,225 fee to have their petitions processed within a shortened 15-day timeframe – instead of the usual months-long wait.
The announcement came barely two weeks before the window opens for H-1B applications to be filed for fiscal year 2019.
“This temporary suspension will help us reduce overall H-1B processing times,” USCIS said in a news release, adding that the agency has been struggling with a high volume of incoming H-1B petitions and a “significant surge” in requests for premium processing.
President Donald Trump has frequently targeted the H-1B visa program in his effort to curb legal immigration, even signing an executive order last April specifically targeting the program for federal review.
Critics have assailed the H-1B visa program for years, arguing companies use it to hire cheap, foreign workers in place of Americans.
Its proponents say it provides much-needed skilled workers to sectors where companies have struggled to hire Americans.
Here’s everything you need to know about the H-1B visa program:
What is the H-1B visa program?
The H-1B program allots temporary visas to foreign workers with specialised skills.
H-1B visa holders are classified as “nonimmigrants” who are not expected to permanently reside in the US. Instead, they are intended to be guest workers hired for jobs US companies have struggled to fill with Americans.
Their visas are valid for three years at a time, and can be renewed only once for another three-year period before workers are expected to leave the US for at least a year.
Demand for H-1B visas has vastly outstripped supply, and they are therefore awarded by an annual lottery system that results in a chaotic rush to mail in paperwork the very day applications open.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) doles out 85,000 such visas annually – 65,000 go to foreign workers who possess at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, and an additional 20,000 for those who have earned a master’s degree or higher in the US.
Trump took aim at the “totally random” lottery system in his remarks on Tuesday, saying the visa system must ensure that only the most skilled, highly paid workers are allotted such visas – and never at the expense of American labour.
Last year, USCIS received 199,000 H-1B applications within five days, the fifth year in a row the visa cap was exceeded in a week or less. Yet applications also dropped from 236,000 applications the previous year.
It was a significant enough drop that former USCIS director Leon Rodriguez speculated to the Wall Street Journal that Trump’s vows to crack down on the program may have deterred some would-be applicants.
Who uses them?
The vast majority of H-1B visa applicants work in science, technology, engineering, and maths occupations, according to USCIS data from recent years.
But H-1B visas are used for a variety of other workers outside STEM fields, including teachers, journalists, and models.
Trump’s own companies have made significant use of the H-1B program. Trump Model Management and Trump Management Group LLC, combined, have sponsored nearly 250 models under the program’s special H-1B3 visa category for models “of distinguished merit or ability,” according to The New York Times.
Even First Lady Melania Trump worked as a model on an H-1B during the 1990s before obtaining a green card in 2001.
H-1B applicants also disproportionately hail from India, and are sponsored by Indian outsourcing firms. Companies such as Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, and Wipro have been called out by the White House and media as scooping up the brunt of the available H-1B visas in recent years.
In 2014, just 13 outsourcing companies – seven of them based in India – took nearly one-third of all available H-1B visas in 2014, according to The New York Times.
Why is it controversial?
The H-1B was intended to bring skilled labour and talent thought to be unavailable within the American workforce to the US . Silicon Valley companies in particular have been vocal proponents of the program, arguing that it supplies necessary talent to growing sectors that need the innovation and creativity.
But critics say the H-1B program is being exploited by companies to hire cheap foreign labour instead of their more expensive American peers. Anecdotes of American workers being forced to train the H-1B visa holders who are replacing them for lower pay have proliferated throughout the media in recent years.
Companies are required under federal regulations to declare that the H-1B workers they employ are not displacing American workers, but a loophole exempts them from that rule if the guest workers they employ are paid at least $US60,000 per year.
Since American tech workers usually earn higher salaries than $US60,000, companies are able to hire foreign workers at lower salaries than American ones, and need not prove they are not undercutting American labour. White House officials have said that a full 80% of H-1B workers are paid less than the median wage for workers in their fields.
Trump has been a staunch opponent of H-1B visas since the early days of his campaign, despite his companies’ previous use of the program.
“The H1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” Trump said in March 2016.
“I will end forever the use of H1B as a cheap labour program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
The criticisms have validity – a recent research paper found that companies’ use of the H-1B program between 1994 and 2001 kept wages down by up to 5.1% and employment of US workers down by as much as 10.8%, even while it created positive effects on the US economy and corporate profits.
What were the implications of Trump’s order restricting the program?
Trump’s executive order in April 2017 directed federal agencies to review and propose changes to the H-1B visa program.
“Jobs must be offered to American workers first. Does that make sense?” Trump said during a visit to a tool manufacturing company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he signed the order.
“Right now, widespread abuse in our immigration system is allowing American workers of all backgrounds to be replaced by workers brought in from other countries to do the same job, sometimes for lesser pay,” he added.
India was hit the hardest by any restrictions to the program, and many of its business leaders and politicians have railed against changes that would restrict their use.
Indian lawmakers have vigorously lobbied the US government on behalf of their IT firms, even meeting with top Trump administration officials to argue that Indian workers in the US boost their firms’ competitiveness.
Meanwhile, other countries looking to expand their budding tech sectors are hoping to take advantage of any restrictions the Trump administration places upon the H-1B program. Canada, for instance, announced an expedited work-permit process for highly skilled foreign workers.
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