The Trump administration is quietly targeting visas for highly-skilled foreign workers and their spouses as part of a sweeping effort to cut down on immigration to the United States. Activists say the move is inhumane and business leaders argue it will hurt the economy.
A report released Tuesday by the Silicon Valley-backed immigration lobbying group FWD.us lays out the White House’s ongoing assault on immigration more broadly, as well as under-the-radar efforts targeting documented immigrants specifically. Founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the organization’s report argues that President Trump’s administration has made “immigration harder and more burdensome with the goal of reducing overall legal immigration.”
Central to the analysis is the issue of H-1B visas, which are traditionally awarded to highly-skilled foreign workers, as well as H-4 visas, which allow their spouses to live in the United States with them.
H-4 visas in particular are becoming a source of contention, the report notes. In recent years, 9 out of 10 H-4 visa recipients were women and nearly 80 percent were Indian. But until recently, H-4 visa holders were unable to work, an issue disproportionately impacting Indian women with advanced degrees and years of work experience, many of whom reported severe mental health ramifications as a result of the rule.
In 2015, President Obama allowed certain H-4 visa recipients to obtain employment, a process referred to as H-4 EAD. The Trump administration has indicated that it plans to end that policy. According to an April 4 letter from U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Lee Francis Cissna to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the administration plans to propose “regulatory changes to remove H-4 dependent spouses from the class of aliens eligible for employment authorisation.”
Cissna’s letter also hones in on H-1B recipients themselves, long a target of the Trump administration.
In April 2017, the president signed the “Buy American, hire American” executive order demanding a review of the visa and signaling that recipients would find no friend in the White House. Since then, H-1B applicants have reported a spike in “requests for evidence” — notices sent by USCIS probing applications and dragging out the process.
Quartz reported in January that attorneys for H-1B applicants are suspicious and concerned over the sheer number of requests, or RFEs. USCIS data shows that requests are rising dramatically, increasing 40 percent between January and November 2017 compared to the same time period in 2016.
Several H-1B applicants that spoke with ThinkProgress during the 2017 and current 2018 application cycles confirmed they had faced additional questions about their applications or that they knew someone who had.
Opponents of the H-1B visa argue it is being abused by large tech companies, who they say opt to hire foreign workers for less pay over domestic workers who might request higher salaries. But a wide range of business leaders and immigration experts argue the visa is crucial to attracting foreign talent in not only the tech industry but academia, research, and non-profit institutions more broadly. Business leaders especially have long argued in favor of the visa, which they say attracts global talent and remains necessary for a competitive and strong economy.
The Trump administration still believes, however, that both the H-1B and H-4 visas are another means through which U.S. citizens are being shut out of the job market. That claim doesn’t seem to be backed by data — in order to work on a visa, foreign citizens undergo an extensive application process during which employers must prove U.S. nationals were considered first for those positions. But USCIS is moving forward with efforts to crack down regardless, worrying organizations like FWD.us.
“Highly-skilled immigrants grow our economy, create American jobs, and boost wages for American workers. H-1B visa holders in particular help make up a critical skills gap in the current U.S. workforce,” the group’s report reads. It emphasizes that record application numbers show that foreign demand remains high in the United States.
Spouses of workers are also a priority. “Rescinding [the H-4 EAD] and removing tens of thousands of people from the American workforce would be devastating to their families, and would hurt our economy,” the report emphasizes.
Those comments come at a time of heightened fear, even for those immigrants who may at one point have felt more secure in their status. For months, rumors have circulated that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering new regulations for H-1B recipients with pending green card applications. The visa is generally offered for either the duration of the job or three years, whichever comes sooner. Renewals are possible up to six years, at which point companies sometimes opt to sponsor green card applications.
For countries with massive backlogs, like India, that process can drag out for years, necessitating H-1B extensions. But DHS is considering ending that option in an effort 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,” according to a source briefed on the matter who spoke with McClatchy in January.
It is unclear when such a decision might come, but in the meantime H-4 recipients have more immediate worries. Plans to rescind their work authorizations were delayed in March but a decision is expected in June. During an event hosted by the US-India Friendship Council on Wednesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and other lawmakers expressed opposition to the move.
“We worked with the Barack Obama administration to institute a rule that said the spouses of H-1B should also be able to work. If we have talented men and women who are spouses, we want them to be able to also contribute those skills,” Jayapal said.
That pushback may or may not translate to broader congressional action, but organizations like FWD.us intend to keep fighting the Trump administration on immigration.
“We are facing a fundamental, existential question as a nation,” the organization writes. “Will we remain the leader of global innovation and business, ‘the place’ to come to study, work, and build the most innovative companies — or will we sacrifice that leadership role, and our core identity as a nation that welcomes immigrants, by telling the majority of the world that they are not welcome here?”