The main U.S. visa program for technology workers could face scrutiny under President-elect Donald Trump and his proposed Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, a long-time critic of the skilled-worker program. H-1B visas admit 65,000 workers and another 20,000 graduate student workers each year. The tech industry may now have to fight to protect it.
Trump sent mixed signals on the campaign trail, sometimes criticizing the visas but other times calling them an important way to retain foreign talent. Sessions, however, has long wanted to restrain the program and introduced legislation last year intended to make the visas less available to large outsourcing companies. These, by far the largest users of H-1B visas, provide foreign contractors to U.S. companies looking to cut information technology costs.
The H-1B visa is intended for specialty occupations that require a college education. Tech firms such as Microsoft and Google hire highly skilled, well-paid foreign workers that are in short supply. H-1B visas are assigned through a lottery once a year by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This year, companies filed 236,000 petitions for the 85,000 available visas. They are awarded to employers – not employees – and tied to specific positions.
Several constituencies have called for program reforms, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, that industry’s largest trade group. It wants the lottery replaced in favor of a system that would award visas to companies offering the highest-paying jobs.
Tech industry groups also want changes. FWD.us – the immigration lobbying group backed by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg – supports setting higher minimum wages and giving priority to companies that sponsor H-1B workers for green cards.
Some Trump allies expect him to keep the program mostly intact. The top 10 recipients of H-1B visas in 2015 were all outsourcing firms, according to government data compiled by the IEEE. Tata Consultancy Services topped the list by securing 8,333 H-1B visas. Amazon, by contrast, ranked number 12 and was awarded just 826 H-1B visas. Google and Microsoft ranked No. 14 and 15, with Facebook at No. 24 and Apple at No. 34.