Wall Street Journal
By Laura Meckler
March 29, 2017
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump ran for office promising changes to the H-1B visa program, which brings high-skilled foreign workers to the U.S. But come Monday, the government opens another round of applications using rules that have long been in place.
Demand for the program badly outstrips the supply so, as in past years, the government will use a lottery to decide which companies get them. The visas are coveted by tech firms, who have unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to increase the cap, which is set at 85,000. The new visas become available each year in early April.
Large outsourcing firms typically scoop up a substantial share of the visas, and they have drawn scrutiny for importing foreign workers, particularly in cases where they are hired to do work once performed by Americans. Smaller firms that request just a few visas have said they have a hard time planning because of uncertainty about whether they will win any.
Changing that distribution would require a time-consuming rewrite of regulations governing the program, experts said. Given that no action was launched right away, the new administration has been expected to maintain existing rules for this year.
“There was a window in which the White House could have made serious reforms,” said Russ Harrison, director of government relations for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, a professional society that lobbies for changes in the program. “For whatever reason, they decided not to take it.”
Michael Short, a White House spokesman, said “reforms of the H-1B visa system are something that the administration is actively considering and working through.” Some lobbyists have been expecting Mr. Trump to announce changes to the program around now, but nothing appears to be imminent.
Arwen Consaul, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Tuesday the agency plans to use the lottery system if demand again outstrips supply, and this week, the American Immigration Lawyers Association sent a notice advising its members of the same. Still, Ms. Consaul said: “This is the plan. If it changes, we will let the public know.”
Early this year, a draft of an executive order for Mr. Trump’s consideration was widely circulated and directed the government to re-examine a range of visa programs to ensure they prioritize and protect “the jobs, wages and well-being of United States workers.” But that order hasn’t been signed by the president.
In Congress, a bipartisan bill pending in the House would punish companies seeking H-1B visas by imposing burdensome requirements if they don’t pay workers at least $100,000 a year. The current threshold to avoid those requirements is $60,000.
Last year, the government received more than 236,000 applications for the 85,000 visas, of which 20,000 are reserved for people with advanced degrees. That exceeded the previous year’s record and was the fourth year in a row in which the cap was reached within five days.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump promised to reduce legal as well as illegal immigration, saying foreign workers drive down wages and threaten American workers. At times, he was particularly critical of the H-1B program, though at other times he praised it.
“These are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” he said in a statement last March. “I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse.”
Much of the criticism has focused on Indian outsourcing firms, which receive many of the available H-1Bs. Their U.S. subsidiaries bring in workers that typically perform technology work at American firms that in some cases was once performed by American workers at higher wages. Some U.S. outsourcing companies have a similar business model. The companies say they are unable to find Americans to do these jobs.
Employers pay fees to submit each application, though only a fraction of the applications are expected to win visas. Universities and nonprofits, which aren’t subject to a cap, also use H-1Bs to hire many workers each year.
Write to Laura Meckler at firstname.lastname@example.org
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