If the US gets tough on H-1B visas, whose loss will it be anyway?

Posted by Admin on February 06, 2017

BY: Skendha Singh, Senior Associate Editor, BrainGain Magazine

The Trump administration’s ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, announced on January 27, is shelved for the time being. But close on the heels of the ban came more worrying news for migrant workers and international scholars around the world. A new bill, titled the ‘High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017’, was introduced in the US Congress with the intention of fixing the “broken US immigration system”. The bill seeks to change the H-1B and L1 visa programs for skilled immigrants.

Senator Chuck Grassley, one of the two Congress members responsible for introducing the bill, told the media, “Congress created these programs to complement America’s high-skilled workforce, not replace it. Unfortunately, some companies are trying to exploit the programs by cutting American workers for cheaper labor. We need programs dedicated to putting American workers first.”

The US issued 85,000 H-1B visas in 2016, to skilled immigrants working in specialty occupations. The demand for these visas is greater than the supply: in 2015-16, the US received 236,000 applications.

The visas are allotted on the basis of a lottery. To qualify, the applicants must earn a minimum of US $60,000 a year. There is also a cap on the number of visas per country (Indians received nearly 70% of all H-1B visas in 2016).

Proposed changes to the program include replacing the lottery system with a selection process designed to favor graduates of US colleges and universities. The wage floor has also been raised from $60,000 to $130,000. But there is no mention of specific skills-based criteria. The bill therefore fails to address the shortage of workers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in the US.

This shortage was precisely why the US extended the Optional Practical Training period last year, and why it needs international students.

The Indian IT industry, as well as US giants like Apple and Google, have expressed concerns over the move. Shivendra Singh, VP of Global Trade Development at NASSCOM, told the media that the Indian IT industry had directly or indirectly created 411,000 jobs, and paid $5 billion in taxes every year.

The protectionist changes are likely to affect the US as much as they will Indian workers and students. They are, arguably, not prohibitive. According to media reports, the average salary of a highly skilled worker in the US is $100,000. Restructuring the salary to include daily allowances, and other benefits may help many employees meet this criterion. The impact on employers, on the other hand, will call for negotiations on many fronts.

Will the bill be passed? Shalabh Kumar, Trump supporter and Head of the Republican Hindu Coalition, has told the media that the US President is unlikely to sign the executive order confirming the bill. But the bill does have the backing of both Republicans and Democrats. Also, it is in keeping with the Trump government’s protectionist agenda.

If the changes are effected, they will dash many hopes, as it will further restrict employment opportunities, and send out the message that foreign students and workers are unwelcome in the US.

The consequences for the US, especially for higher education, tech industries and international relations, could be sizeable. And very bad.

An earlier version of this article was published by BrainGain Magazine.