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US: Bills propose changes to in-demand H-1B visa scheme

A series of bills are set to be introduced in the US congress proposing changes to the popular temporary worker H-1B and L-1 visa programmes, with the aim of curbing abuse of the system.

Under the proposed bill by Senators Grassley and Durbin, the “best and brightest students” who have been educated in the US will be given preference. Photo: Photos by Clark.

"We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American"

The H-1B visa for highly skilled foreign workers has widespread support among American firms hiring foreign graduates, especially technology companies in Silicon Valley.

One of the bills, which has bipartisan backing will, for the first time, require US Citizenship and Immigration Services carry out a selection process in the annual allocation of the H-1B visas instead of maintaining the current lottery system.

“Congress created these programs to complement America’s high-skilled workforce, not replace it”

Under this new system, the “best and brightest students” who have been educated in the US will be given preference, according to the senators who introduced the legislation, Republican Chuck Grassley from Iowa and Democrat Dick Durbin from Illinois.

Both have advocated for reforms of the H-1B visa programme for years.

“Reforming the H-1B and L-1 visa programmes [used by international companies to transfer workers to the US] is a critical component of fixing our broken immigration system and must be included in comprehensive immigration reform legislation,” said Durbin.

“For years, foreign outsourcing companies have used loopholes in the laws to displace qualified American workers and facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs. The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act would end these abuses and protect American and foreign workers from exploitation.”

An H-1B visa is typically granted to individuals working in a speciality occupation, for example in business management or engineering jobs.

There is currently an annual cap of 65,000 people who can be granted an H-1B visa, and with an additional 20,000 visas allowed under the advanced degree exemption.

The selection process is done by lottery. For FY 2017, 236,000 petitions were filed for the H-1B visa, for the total of 85,000 allocations.

The new proposal will do away with the lottery system and will require preference be given to those who have been educated in the US.

“When skilled foreign workers are needed to meet the demands of our labour market, we must also ensure that visa applicants who honed their skills at American colleges and universities are a priority over the importation of more foreign workers,” said Grassley.

It will also favour graduates with advanced degrees, those with a high wage and those with “valuable skills”.

The proposed changes have been met with some concern from the Indian IT industry, which greatly benefits from the H-1B visa programme.

The US is the biggest export market for the Indian IT industry, and accounts for around 60% of its export earnings.

Proposed amendments to the L-1 visa programme include the implementation of a wage floor, and an alteration to the definition of “specialised knowledge” (one of the current eligibility requirements) in order to ensure L-1 visas “are reserved only for truly key personnel”, said a statement.

“Congress created these programmes to complement America’s high-skilled workforce, not replace it,” said Senator Grassley.

“Unfortunately, some companies are trying to exploit the programmes by cutting American workers for cheaper labour.

“We need programmes dedicated to putting American workers first,” he said.

The bill was first introduced in 2007 and is being re-introduced after years of advocating for change from both senators.

The start of January also saw Republican House Representative Darrell Issa from California introduce a separate bill, designed to “close a loophole in the H-1B visa programme”.

Referred to as the ‘Protect and Grow American Jobs Act’, the legislation aims to stop companies from hiring cheaper labour from abroad instead of from the domestic labour market.

The bill proposes an increase of the salary threshold for those on an H-1B visa from $60,000 a year, to $100,000.

It also proposed to eliminate the master’s degree exemption, which, according to Issa’s statement, would cut down on abuse, as many foreign workers have sought low-quality certificates to meet the requirements for an exemption.

“We need programmes dedicated to putting American workers first”

The exemption allows for master’s level applicants who have not won petitions through the degree level exemption to be eligible for visas in the the regular pool of petitions.

The bill “will ensure that our valuable high-skilled immigration spots are used by companies when the positions cannot be filled by the existing workforce,” said Issa.

Stakeholders in California’s tech industry have spoken out against Issa’s reforms. “It favours big companies that are able to pay a lot more,” said Laura Behrens Wu, CEO of San Francisco software startup Shippo, where 10 out of the company’s 51 employees are H-1B visa holders. “We’re not able to pay the salaries that the big companies do,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

President Trump has previously expressed his concern over the abuse of the H-1B visa programme.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, he said: “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labour programme, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration programme. No exceptions.”

He also signalled a shift towards prioritising American workers in his inauguration speech on Friday.

“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” he said.

He added: “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.”

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” he said.

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