Trump’s crackdown on H-1B visas goes far beyond tech workers

Foreign students and non-profit workers are among those being left out of the conversation.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Donald Trump’s war on immigrants just doesn’t let up.

The president signed an executive order on Tuesday as part of an ongoing effort to crack down on companies hiring lower-wage workers from outside of the United States. At a Wisconsin factory, Trump promised to order an interdepartmental review of the H-1B visa program, which many companies and organizations rely on when sponsoring “skilled” foreign talent.

While a number of visas allow non-Americans to live and work in the United States, the H-1B program has been the subject of particular ire for the Trump administration. Seen by critics as a tool abused by companies in order to attract cheap foreign labor, support for H-1B reform is bipartisan.

Tech workers represent an enormous percentage of H-1B recipients, and are often seen as the face of this visa program. Unsurprisingly, tech companies have lobbied hard to expand the program, and in 2015 the top ten H-1B recipients were outsourcing firms. It’s no surprise, then, that much of the conversation surrounding Trump’s H-1B crackdown has been dominated by references to outsourcing, technology, and Silicon Valley.

But tech workers aren’t the only people who rely on H-1B visas for their livelihoods. Academics and lower-wage employees (oftentimes at non-profits), as well as foreign students drawn to those jobs, also count on the program — and a crackdown could hinder their efforts to pursue the jobs they love, in fields that aren’t typically lucrative, like advocacy and social justice.

In fact, much of the coverage surrounding the H-1B program fails to explore its complicated intricacies.

On the first day of April every year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) begins accepting H-1B applications, with a maximum of 65,000 slots available (an additional 20,000 are reserved for those who graduate with a Master’s or Doctorate degree earned at a U.S. university; the visa itself requires a Bachelor’s degree). University-related positions are also granted their own exemptions from the cap.

In recent years, the number allotted has been quickly surpassed, resulting in a lottery system. Only after making it through each of these steps are H-1B petitioners able to work in the United States, typically for a period of three years, which is sometimes extended to a maximum of six.

Even before Trump’s newest executive order, it was a lot to go through, with no guarantee of success. Now, the odds may become more daunting than ever.

Changing the H-1B program in order to deter the hiring of foreign labor might involve a number of steps. One of them could be increasing salary requirements. Across industries, organizations sponsoring employees are required to meet salary thresholds, in addition to paying the already-high fees demanded by sponsorship itself. The current minimum annual salary for “H-1B dependent” companies (or, companies where more than 15 percent of staff are H-1B visa holders) is $60,000 — but various proposals in Congress could see it hiked to $100,000, or even $130,000.

Efforts like these are meant to target large companies. But they’re also making nonprofits nervous. Organizations without a great deal of money to begin with still have to pay extra fees to hire foreign labor, regardless of how valuable and critical non-American workers can be.

According to the NonProfit Times, with more hoops to jump through and costs likely to rise, employers are growing concerned.

“They’re hiring people who have a lot of talent, often in areas where there are no Americans available to do the job,” Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Council for Global Immigration (CFGI), told the publication. “My members are watching all of this very closely.”

Anita Drummond, an attorney with Venable LLP in Washington, D.C. who specializes in nonprofits, shared that concern, and argued that H-1B advocates “should do their homework and be ready to talk about the value that these H-1Bs bring to those organizations, and how much value those organizations bring to the United States, and ultimately the world, in areas such as cancer research or educational development.”

Potential H-1B crackdowns also pose a serious problem for students. One of the most appealing aspects of choosing to go to school in the United States is the prospect of the H-1B visa, which allows many foreign students to stay and work after they graduate and have already built ties in the country. But now, with anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies gaining steam under Trump, foreign students are increasingly hesitant to come.

Scroll, an English-language Indian publication, noted that a number of Indian students are already opting to pursue their studies elsewhere.

“I chose Canada over the U.S. because with Donald Trump in the White House there are too many uncertainties about U.S. immigration policies. I can’t bet a future on winning a H-1B visa lottery versus good opportunities in Canada,” Ranjit Lal, an Indian student, said. “I want to do my Master’s in engineering in McGill. Canada is an immigrant-friendly country. That’s what is most important to me.”

Scroll cited a survey from several groups, including the Institute of International Education, that found nearly 40 percent of around 250 universities surveyed reported a drop in applications from international students, many of whom were from the Middle East and South Asia.

It’s not hard to see why citizens from these regions may feel unwelcome here. The administration’s Muslim ban targeting nationals of Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia (and, previously, Iraq) has come amid spiking hate crimes and a growing number of raids and deportations. It’s an uncertain climate for immigrants, even those deemed highly educated and skilled.

Even prior to the new executive order, the administration’s restrictions on immigrants were already having an impact on the H-1B process. While 2017 marks the fifth year in a row that the H-1B cap was exceeded in a week or less, numbers are down from 2016, the first time they have tapered in four years. When asked, the Trump administration’s vows to crack down on the program were cited by USCIS officials as a likely reason for the drop.