President Trump’s administration is reportedly considering cracking down on visas for highly skilled workers, this time with potential repercussions for hundreds of thousands of recipients with pending green card applications.
According to sources who spoke with McClatchy reporters, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering new regulations ending extensions for H-1Bs — visas for skilled workers in a range of fields like technology, research, and education. Foreign students hoping to stay and work in research, advocacy, and the non-profit sector are also among those who rely on H-1Bs. The visa is typically offered for three years with the option of renewal up to six years.
Currently, some recipients with pending green card applications have the option of extending that time period, allowing them to work in the United States until their paperwork comes through. The vast majority are Indian workers, many employed by large technology companies. If the new regulations go into effect, they will be forced to leave.
“The idea is to create a sort of ‘self-deportation’ of hundreds of thousands of Indian tech workers in the United States to open up those jobs for Americans,” said one source briefed on the matter.
The Trump administration has taken a hardline approach to immigration thus far, cracking down on undocumented immigrants and calling for harsh punishments for so-called sanctuary cities. The president has also endorsed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act introduced by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (AR) and David Perdue (GA) last August, which attempts to cut immigration to the United States in half — from approximately 1 million people to only 500,000 — through a reduction in the number of green cards issued. The RAISE Act also seeks to cap refugee numbers and do away with the diversity visa lottery, which Trump fiercely opposes.
The RAISE Act has since stalled in the Senate, but the White House hasn’t given up on curbing immigration, with the president now seemingly turning his sights back on H-1B visas.
In April, Trump fulfilled a campaign promise and signed the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order cracking down on the visa. At the time, Trump claimed the move was a win for blue-collar Americans out of jobs. But the realities of the visa, which provides one of the only feasible paths to documented immigration for many people in white-collar jobs, are much more complicated.
While undocumented immigrants face a far steeper battle to stay in the United States, immigrants struggling to find documented employer sponsorship like the kind required by the H-1B also face a great deal of paperwork, money, and waiting, often suffering mental health issues as a result.
Many immigrants working on H-1B visas also apply for green cards. For citizens from certain countries, however, per-country restrictions create a backlog. That means nationals from countries like India have to wait much longer for permanent residency — running out their H-1B visas in the meantime. The extension allows them to stay until their residency is established, something the Trump administration wants to end.
It’s unclear how many people would be impacted by the reported regulations. Indian media has speculated that between 500,000 and 700,000 immigrants could be forced to leave the United States, but the numbers themselves are hard to ascertain. That’s largely the fault of the government, Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told ThinkProgress.
“In order to know how many people are impacted, it would be helpful if the government would just tell us,” she said. According to her own calculations, Pierce estimated any move to end the extensions could impact as many as 200,000 people.
Other estimates are substantially higher: Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and partner with the law firm Holland & Knight, told ThinkProgress around 1 million people could be impacted, a figure that accounts for spouses and children.
Virtually all estimates point to at least 100,000 people being affected by the change.
That reality is weighing heavily on immigrants, many of whom have settled into regular lives and routines here in the United States.
“I’ve gotten hundreds of emails and calls, with people asking, ‘What should I do, what should I do?’ This information has really sparked fear in the community,” Fresco said. “People have bought houses and have children, thinking this is a logical path. Now they’re terrified.”
Whether the regulations go into effect or not, the irony of the White House’s crackdown on H-1B recipients isn’t lost on experts. Trump has said the United States needs more highly skilled immigrants and called for immigration reform that replaces “our low-skilled [immigration] system with a points-based system.” That’s left many analysts confused in light of the administration’s attacks on the very same immigrants Trump purportedly wants to keep.
“This administration definitely recognizes the value of high-skilled immigration. They’re always saying they want to change our system,” Pierce said. “The H-1B visa is just that. With a lot of these policies, they seem to be going after the exact immigrants they value. These immigrants contribute a lot to our economy and country. Some of the companies we value most require these workers. It’s wild to think this administration would go after that.”
Pierce noted that Trump’s reported decision to target immigrants with pending green card applications was particularly surprising.
“These are individuals that companies have found so valuable that companies want to go through this expensive process to keep them,” she said. “When they’re talking about taking the visa away from this group, this is arguably the group that most deserves it. It’s just very surprising. It doesn’t seem like it will add any value and it definitely won’t address the problem.”
H-1Bs have come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike, largely because of their alleged misuse by large IT corporations like Infosys. Critics say the visa is used to outsource jobs and to hire foreign workers for lower pay than their U.S. counterparts. But proponents underscore its importance, saying it contributes to workforce diversity while also filling severe skill gaps.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who represents Silicon Valley, addressed both the need for H-1B reform and for the visa’s preservation in a series of tweets on Tuesday.
“My parents came here on green cards. So did @sundarpichai, @elonmusk, @satyanadella,” Khanna tweeted, naming several globally prominent business figures. “Trump is saying to immigrants and their kids we don’t have a place in America. It’s not just wrong. It’s dumb. Mr. President, would America really be greater without us?”
Khanna added, “I have called for reforming the H1B process to prevent undercutting wages. But to deny H1B visa holders the chance to get green cards & not deal with the back log is counter to American ideals. This Trump policy is not about fairness to American workers. It’s anti-immigrant.”
I have called for reforming the H1B process to prevent undercutting wages. But to deny H1B visa holders the chance to get green cards & not deal with the back log is counter to American ideals. This Trump policy is not about fairness to American workers. It’s anti-immigrant.
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) January 3, 2018
The impact of targeting H-1Bs means fewer people are able to immigrate to the United States, a priority for the Trump administration and one that could have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy.
“We’ve heard a lot of stories from individuals who are not interested in staying or coming into the country on the H-1B just because of the rhetoric that’s coming out of this administration,” said Pierce.
Only Congress has the power to fully do away with the program. In the meantime, the Trump administration appears to be doing all it can to make it impossible for immigrants to utilize the visa.
Since last summer, numerous H-1B candidates have noticed increasing challenges to their applications from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Requests for evidence, or RFEs, are up 44 percent compared to 2016, and a number of applicants found their visas denied for vague and seemingly mundane reasons.
“They want to render the H-1B program unusable,” immigration attorney Fresco said. “They won’t be able to end it, but through delays, denials, and the like they can make it as onerous as possible for people to use.”