Trump Raises Tech Industry Jitters with Last Minute H-1B Visa Shifts



The rules surrounding the tech industry’s favorite visa program are largely intact, despite last-minute announcements from the Trump administration that stirred fears that the industry was being singled out for scrutiny.

The scramble for 85,000 H-1B visa slots among employers seeking to fill high-skilled positions with foreign workers started April 3 – the same day the Justice Department and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which gives out the visas, announced some changes.

“This announcement does nothing more than create fear and anxiety for U.S. business owners, and will ultimately hurt the economy if employers cannot hire foreign workers without potentially harming themselves,” Tahmina Watson, founder and attorney at Watson Immigration Law in Seattle, told Bloomberg BNA after Justice’s announcement.

The tech industry has harbored fears of an immigration crackdown since President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order seeking to limit entry of immigrants and refugees from several predominantly Muslim countries. But the recent moves reflected more of a shift in tone than a widespread visa sea change, despite criticism heaped on the program from both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, immigration experts told Bloomberg BNA.

“This doesn’t have much teeth,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization that supports limited immigration, told Bloomberg BNA. “It is a clear signal the Justice Department is watching you, it’s just small beer compared to the kind of changes they could have made on their own that don’t require legislation.”

Justice warned companies April 3 not to discriminate against U.S. workers who may be able to fill openings. That same day, the USCIS announced that it would closely monitor companies that heavily use H-1B’s or that petition for off-site H-1B workers. That may most heavily impact Indian-based IT firms who make money by hiring foreign IT workers only to contract them out to other employers.

Last week, the agency also said its Nebraska Service Center should update its H-1B processing policies to match those of other service centers. Computer programmers applying for H-1B visas at the Nebraska center should provide additional proof that their positions fit within the H-1B definition of a “specialty occupation,” an agency memo said.

The tech industry, which relies heavily on the H-1B program to recruit talent it says it can’t find in the U.S., came under fire after the government started scrutinizing companies like Walt Disney Co. for allegedly contracting foreign workers at lower wages to replace U.S. information technology employees.

The industry has lobbied for raising the H-1B visa cap and loosening the program’s restrictions. Among the program’s biggest users are India-based TCS and Infosys, Inc., IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., according to a 2016 National Foundation for American Policy study. In 2014, 65 percent of approved H-1B petitions went to workers in computer-related occupations, according to USCIS data.

Meanwhile, the industry may still be waiting for more substantive changes to the H-1B program to materialize. In January, a leaked copy of a draft executive order promising changes to the H-1B program put tech companies on edge. But a final order has yet to materialize.