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US suspends fast-track processing of H-1B visas

US Citizenship and Immigration Services has suspended fast-track processing of H-1B visas, the temporary worker visa for highly skilled foreign workers and a key route to post-study work for international graduates.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services suspend fast track H-1B visa processingUS Citizenship and Immigration Services said the suspension would help speed up H-1B visa processing in the long run. Photo: Wikicommons/Gulbenk.

“This could result in individuals currently living in the US needing to leave”

The visa, which allows foreign nationals to work in the US for up to six years, usually take three to six months to process, but can take longer.

However, employers can pay to have visas processed within 15 days.

“Graduate enrolments could be hurt due to uncertainty with the immigration policies”

The suspension of this premium processing route will come into force on April 3 and will last up to six months.

The suspension is to help USCIS to speed up processing times in the long run by allowing it to clear a backlog of long-pending H-1B visa petitions that it has been unable to process “due to the high volume of incoming petitions and the significant surge in premium processing requests over the past few years”, it said in a statement.

However, the suspension could cause problems for graduating international students hoping to switch to a H-1B visa, as they won’t be able to stay in the US while their visa status is pending.

The longer wait could therefore “be particularly harmful” for international students, Tahmina Watson of Watson Immigration Law told CNN Money.

And the suspension could be disruptive to academics, by delaying the transition of foreign graduate students beginning a postdoctoral research placement from a student visa to an H-1B visa, according to Gary McDowell, executive director at Future of Research, an organisation of early career researchers in the US.

H-1B processing can take up to nine months in academia and “Many institutions rely on the premium processing to give a more rapid turnaround time,” he wrote in an update on the organisation’s website.

“Therefore this suspension has the potential to delay hiring of new [postdoctoral researchers], or prohibit the continued hire of postdocs currently on J or F [exchange visitor or student] visas.”

“This could result in individuals currently living in the US needing to leave,” he warned.

“This suspension has the potential to prohibit the continued hire of postdocs currently on J or F visas”

The suspension of premium processing for H-1B visas and wider reforms to the visa come as part of a package that “could be unnerving for many international students”, noted Rahul Choudaha, co-founder of interEDGE.

Students are also facing uncertainty about the future of the Optional Training Program and the revised executive order signed by Donald Trump yesterday, he noted.

“Graduate enrolments could be hurt due to uncertainty with the immigration policies,” he predicted.

Proposed legislation introduced to congress in January aims to raise the minimum salary threshold for H-1B visa recipients and require USCIS to carry out a selection process for visa allocation for the first time.

Every year, 65,000 H-1B visas are allocated through an open lottery, with an additional 20,000 reserved for foreign citizens with a master’s degree or PhD from a US university, under the advanced degree exemption.

The visas are in such high demand that in recent years, USCIS has received enough applications to fill both tranches within a matter of days.

In light of the announcement and the revised executive order announced yesterday, the Association of International Education Administrators issued a statement “in recognition of the challenges that international education and its leaders currently and will continue to face”, urging its members to continue to advocate for international engagement.

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