H1B visa row: Why US’ decision to maintain status quo on visa norms matters

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New Delhi | January 09, 2018 5:37 PM

The USCIS said in a statement that there is no policy change under consideration in the US that could force the deportation of several Indian tech workers.

H1B visaA man holds an envelope from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Service during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives Museum in Washington December 15, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Indian techies must have heaved a sigh of relief after the US announced today that it is not considering any proposal for changes to the existing visa norms for highly skilled workers. Part of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise of ‘Buy American Hire American’, an internal memo circulated by the Department of Homeland Security set out to end the provision of granting extensions to H-1B visa holders whose applications for permanent residency (Green Card) had been accepted.

The move had sparked fears among the thousands of foreign workers in the technology sector of a possible deportation and subsequent loss of jobs. Much to their relief, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that there is no policy change under consideration in the US that could force the deportation of several Indian tech workers.

“USCIS is not considering a regulatory change that would force H-1B visa holders to leave the United States by changing our interpretation of section 104(c) of AC-21, which provides for H-1B extensions beyond the 6 year limit,” Jonathan Withington, chief of media relations for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement.

The Trump administration’s decision comes on the back of some stiff criticism of the proposed move by the business and technology sectors in the US as well as many of its lawmakers. Though the USCIS categorically denied making changes based on “any pressure”, the decision does augur well for both India and the US.

What was the proposal all about?

Ever since Trump assumed office as President, he has been talking about cracking down on the H1B visa programme in order to “protect American jobs”. Under the existing laws in the US, a worker having an H-1B visa can remain in the US for up to six years. It is initially for three years but can be extended for additional three years. A person having a pending permanent residency application gets an indefinite extension of the H-1B visa until the applicant’s Green Card processing is completed.

On April 18, Trump signed an executive order calling for strict enforcement of all laws governing entry into the U.S. for the sake of employment. The order also asked the Departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State to recommend changes to the H-1B temporary worker visa program and protect the interests of American workers by making sure only the highest-paid and most-skilled applicants receive visas.

Earlier, the government began accepting H-1B visa applications for 2018 with no changes to the program, but the Department of Homeland Security announced in April that it was adopting a targeted approach to prevent fraud and abuse.

The proposal had sought to curb extension of H1B visas, effectively meaning that workers with their permanent residency applications pending would have to leave the country until their Green Card is processed. This process can take years considering the sheer number of applications.

Impact on Indian techies

Many feared that the proposal to deny H1B visa extensions was indirectly aimed at Indian IT professionals working in the US. As per reports, the proposal for more stringent norms for the H1B visas could have resulted in the possible deportation of 5,00,000 to 7,50,000 Indians from the US. According to the Pew Research Center, over 50 percent of the H1B visas were issued to Indian nationals.

While earlier rules made it easy for techies to continue working in the US if their Green Card applications were pending. Many such workers have been in the US for over a decade considering the time the entire process may take. Such workers could have to return to India till their applications were processed. The move would have disrupted the lives of many such families and hit their livelihoods.

As per one such estimate, the number of H1B workers in the US awaiting Green Cards could be over 1 million.

Impact on IT companies

The proposed changes even had top Indian tech firms like TCS, Infosys and Wipro worried. These firms rely heavily on H1B visas for their workforce requirements in the US and any restrictions of the kind proposed would have hit them badly.

These firms provide outsourcing services to American firms and employ thousands of Indian workers for the purpose. The changes proposed new restrictions to prevent abuse and misuse of H-1B visas. It called for a tightening of the definition of visa-dependent companies and sought imposition of fresh restrictions in terms of minimum salary and movement of talent.

While these norms would have their own set of implications, the Bill also places the onus on clients to certify that the visa holder is not displacing an existing employee for a tenure of 5-6 years.

The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), a trade association of Indian information technology, had warned that any disruptive move on the visa front would be detrimental for both India and the US.

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