Amidst controversies, a new H-1B reform bill seeks to expand annual quota

While the debate on hiring foreign workers and granting them a way to citizenship, a new Bill has been introduced in the US Senate that increases the annual quota of H-1B visas from 65,000 to 85,000. The Bill, the Immigration Innovation Act, by the Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake introduced legislation on H-1B, which is a common work visa granted to high-skilled foreigners to work at companies in the U.S.

The Visa is valid for three years, and can be renewed for another three years. In addition, the legislation would also provide work authorization for spouses and children of H-1B visa holders. But the program is particularly near and dear to the tech community with many engineers vying for one of the program’s 65,000 visas each year. Demand often exceeds the supply — in which case, a lottery system is activated.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which the Trump administration wants to terminate, awards up to 50,000 individuals per year a visa for a green card, which allows permanent residency and is a path to US citizenship. Trump has been against diversity visa as he believes that this does not attract the best and the brightest to the US.

The bill proposes to add a “market-based escalator” so the supply can better support demand. That means granting up to 110,000 additional visas (a total of 195,000), and prioritizing visas for those with master’s degrees, foreign Ph.D.’s or U.S. STEM bachelor degrees.

The bill, originally introduced in the Senate in January 2015, seeks to placate the Trump administration’s concerns. For example, by specifying that employers may not use the visa with intent to substitute an American worker. Moreover, it seeks to remove per country limits for green cards sponsored by employers, which contributes to a backlog for citizens from countries like India and China. The bill also proposes lifting the existing cap of 20,000 additional H-1B visas reserved for those with master’s degrees if their employers agree to sponsor their green cards.

“Senator Hatch believes that in the current political environment this effort represents an ideal step in bringing Republicans and Democrats together to address flaws in our broken immigration system,” said Senator Hatch’s spokesman Matt Whitlock in a statement. Hatch announced earlier this month that he won’t seek re-election.

US President Donald Trump has proposed to end the visa lottery system in favour of reducing backlogs of highly-skilled workers, a plan which may benefit thousands of Indian IT professionals who are currently having several decades of waiting period to get their Green Cards. If passed by the Congress and signed into law, such a move is expected to significantly reduce the green card backlogs for highly skilled immigrants from India.

Diversity visas are allocated geographically. Nationals of countries from which 50,000 or fewer immigrants came to the US over the previous five years combined are eligible for diversity visas. Immigrants from any one country may not receive more than seven per cent of diversity visas issued annually.

Given that there are hundreds and thousands of Indian IT professionals waiting in queue to get their green cards because of the current country quota, the relocation of diversity visa numbers to green cards is expected to hugely benefit them.

Immigrants from 18 countries are not eligible for diversity visa because they sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the US over the previous five years combined. The countries are Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, the UK and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is potentially out to revoke the Obama-era H4 EAD rule, which extended unrestricted employment eligibility to certain H-4 visa holders, that is, dependant spouses of H-1B holders seeking a lawful permanent resident status. This could happen as early as next month. If acted upon, it is unclear if this would revoke the already issued H-4 EADs — but, in all likelihood, may prevent renewals in future.

The Information Technology Industry Council, a major lobbying group for the tech industry, led a group of 10 IT organizations which sent a letter Jan. 17 to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Lee Francis Cissna supporting the continuation of work authorization for H-4 visa holders.

The Department of Homeland Security announced Dec. 15 that it is proposing a rule that would end work authorization for H-4 visa holders, stripping more than 100,000 people – largely women from India – of their ability to legally work in the U.S. The DHS proposal has caused panic in the Indian American community, as H-4 visa holders with employment authorization could lose their ability to work as early as this summer.

There has been an ongoing campaign targeting US Senators and the public at large to save the H-4 EAD and understand the plight of those who would be affected. “Removing H-4 Dependent Spouses from the Class of Aliens Eligible for Employment Authorization” is how directly the US Department of Homeland Security worded its intent in its Fall 2017 regulatory agenda, sounding alarm bells in the homes of several US-based Indian professionals.

ITIC noted that in 2016 there were approximately 3.3 million STEM-related job openings posted online, but U.S. universities graduated 568,000 students with STEM degrees that year. “To meet this job demand, it is vital that we not only provide STEM education and training to more U.S. children, workers, and college students, but that we also recruit the top talent from U.S. universities and from abroad. The H-4 rule is instrumental in allowing U.S. employers to fill these critical positions with qualified professionals,” stated ITI.

The letter was co-signed by Fwd.us, an immigrant rights organization founded by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and supported by several leading IT companies. The National Association of Manufacturers, the Semiconductor Industry Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were also signatories, along with five other industry lobbying groups.

Subscribe to our Newsletter