The H-1B visa program, which offers 85,000 visas each year to foreign skilled or specialty workers, is undergoing some changes. The program, which grants certain employers access to foreign labor when the necessary skills are not available within the U.S. workforce, is facing three major changes initiated by the executive branch to clamp down on perceived abuses. On March 31, the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that computer programmers, typically considered the lowest qualifying position for the H-1B program, would have to demonstrate that they’ve attained at least a bachelor’s degree in their field; associate’s degrees would no longer be considered acceptable. As a follow-up to this change, the USCIS announced on April 3 that “H-1B dependent employers” (companies with a workforce composition of at least 15 percent H-1B visa holders) would be subject to more stringent screenings to ensure compliance with the law.
“This identifies heavy users of H-1B visas,” Dick Burke, CEO of Envoy Global, told Business News Daily. “What (USCIS) is saying is, ‘When we make site visits for compliance, we are going to focus on H-1B dependent companies or those with a high percentage of workers working off site … in a consulting capacity.'” Then, on April 4,, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) jumped into the game with an announcement that it would step up enforcement actions against companies that violated the law, particularly with respect to displacing American workers. “The H-1B visa program authorizes the temporary employment of qualified individuals who are not otherwise authorized to work in the U.S,” a U.S. DOL statement reads.
“In recent years, some employers have used the H-1B program to hire foreign workers despite American workers being qualified and available for work, or even to replace American workers.” According to Burke, these three measures taken together are targeting what is known as the “infotech industry,” in which companies employ large numbers of IT workers from abroad – most commonly from India – as consultants, which then support IT operations for other companies. “There are instances where displacement does occur,” Burke said. “And it’s undebatable that infotech gets a large percentage of the H-1B visas. However, the problem is that (discussions of displacement) drowns out the bigger problem, which is a skills shortage in U.S. STEM jobs.” On April 7, just five days after this year’s H-1B lottery opened, the number of applicants had already exceeded the limit. This has become the norm in recent years, with USCIS receiving almost three times as many applications as the limit in 2016. “Many employers have retracted from sponsoring prospective H-1B employees because the uncertainty makes it cost-prohibitive for companies to invest time and money in an employee who may not be able to work for them after all,” said Renata Castro, an immigration attorney at the Castro Legal Group.