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US: H-1B selection system to prioritise higher earners

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has announced that the process for issuing H-1B visas will be changed as of March 9 to prioritise applicants offered higher salaries, replacing the current lottery system.

H-1BThe new measures will not come into place until after the Biden administration takes over. Photo: iStock Photo

New applications are capped at 85,000 per year

H-1B visas are a possible route for international students who wish to work in the US after graduating, with 34,488 people transferring from F-1 to H-1B visas in 2017. The issuance of visas to new applicants is capped at 85,000 per year.

However, the USCIS deputy director for policy Joseph Edlow said that the program had “been exploited and abused by employers primarily seeking to fill entry-level positions and reduce overall business costs.”

With 71.7% of all approved petitions coming from Indian-born beneficiaries, 388,403 H-1B petitions were approved in the 2019 financial year.

More than half (54%) of applicants had a masters degree, 66.1% were planning to work in computer-related occupations and the median salary was $98,000.

“It’s going to disproportionately affect students who are interested in coming to the United States, studying and then getting an entry level job after graduation,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the US Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.

“It’s going to disproportionately affect students… getting an entry level job after graduation”

“In the past, we’ve had a lot of applicants in the lowest level of wages, and under this system it looks like very few or even no applicants with level one wages would get through.”

In his 2016 election campaign, Trump said H-1B visas were unfair to US workers.

Stakeholders seem unable to agree as to whether abuses within the H-1B visa system exist or not, but those that do argue that companies lay off US staff and outsource work to business employing H-1B visa holders. Unlike laying off workers and directly hiring H-1B visa holders, this practice isn’t illegal.

However, it is difficult to quantify how much of an issue this is as “the findings today on the displacement of US workers are almost entirely anecdotal” and more data and analysis is needed.

“The administration is very concerned about this specific pattern and there are policy changes that would very directly address that specific fact,” Pierce said.

“And rather than do that, they’re focusing instead on these very broad changes that are going to hurt legitimate and illegitimate H-1B employers alike.”

Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, disputes that H-1B visa holders are taking jobs from US nationals, adding that visa holders predominately work in sectors with low unemployment (as of November 2020, unemployment in computer occupations was 2.3% compared to 6.5% in all other occupations).

She further said that the Alliance had been in communication with the Biden transition team about their opposition to the proposed rules.

NAFSA has also pointed out that because the effective date of the final rule comes after the new administration takes office, “it is unclear whether the effective date might be delayed by a general ‘regulatory review’ order, as has been the custom in recent administrations”.

“Even beyond the economic arguments, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the talent, the energy and the innovation that international students and alumni bring to the US economy and marketplace,” said Feldblum.

“These are exactly the individuals we don’t want to bar from contributing to the United States”

“These are exactly the individuals we don’t want to bar from contributing to the United States. If international students don’t think that they have a good chance of being able to stay and work in the US, that diminishes their enthusiasm to come to the US to study,” she continued.

“I don’t want to stop with ‘yes, I think we’ll be able to reverse this’. I also think that higher education leaders in the United States want to do far more.

“We are the premier destination for international students. We should be even more so.”

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