Perhaps preoccupied with a failed Obamacare repeal effort and continued suspicion over its ties with Russia, the Trump administration appears to have missed the opportunity for swift reform of the H-1B visa program for foreign workers. Applications for this year’s batch of visas open Monday, April 3rd, with quotas and allocations for the controversial program essentially unchanged. 85,000 visas will be awarded from an applicant pool that could exceed last year's 230,000.
Though an H-1B reform bill made it to the House Judiciary Committee as early as January, it has sat untouched in an immigration subcommittee ever since. A draft executive order seen by CNN in January had no details on H-1B reforms, and has not been signed.
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The only notable change to the program this year comes from within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which says it will temporarily suspend fast-track ‘premium’ processing of applications. However, USCIS says the goal of that change is not to restrict the program, but to reduce overall processing times.
While restrictions are opposed by major technology firms, H-1B reform could have had a real impact in helping American workers, and, unlike Trump’s other immigration efforts, the idea enjoys widespread support among immigration experts. That’s because the program has become, according to many, a conduit for cheap foreign labor that depresses the wages and employment of American IT workers.
Trump, after slamming H-1Bs early in his campaign, seemed to flip-flop on the issue, even as he doubled and trebled-down on his idea of a border wall with Mexico. Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, though, was seen by some as a signal that the H-1B would be a priority. Sessions has been a longtime critic of the program, and in a February hearing said that “thousands of U.S. workers are being replaced by foreign labor” through the program.
Experts agree—a recent university study found that the H-1B program lowered IT wages by as much as 5%, and employment levels by 11%, between 1994 and 2001.
That may have worsened since, as outsourcing companies took greater advantage of the program and wage gaps widened. The majority of H-1B visas now go to technology workers employed by foreign firms, particularly large Indian outsourcing companies. According to Bloomberg, Indian outsourcing firm Tata received 5,650 H-1Bs in 2014, while Amazon was awarded 877, the largest number of any traditional technology firm. Indian workers receive 69.4% of all H1-B visas.
Meanwhile, salary requirements for H-1B approvals have not kept pace with overall wage growth, meaning that H-1B workers can be had more cheaply than Americans—on average, according to Bloomberg, more than 25% less. Awarding H-1Bs according to salary levels, rather than by the current lottery system, would be one clear path to protecting American jobs, while preserving the program's intended purpose of easing immigration for highly specialized foreign talent.
But for that, as for other major Trump campaign promises, it seems Americans will have to wait.