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H1-B visa applications facing heightened scrutiny

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The U.S. received 199,000 H1-B visa petitions in 2017, down from 336,107 in 2016. (Courtesy photo)

On April 2, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting H-1B applications for the 2019 fiscal year. For those unfamiliar with H-1B visas, this is the program that allows American companies to temporarily fill an employment shortfall with foreign workers who have specialty knowledge, holding at least a bachelor’s degree in the area of specialty.

It is not surprising that 68 percent of all H-1B approvals in 2017 were for computer-related jobs. It is also not surprising that 90 percent of H-1Bs were issued to people from India and China. What is perhaps indicative of the general trend of our country is the number of petitions received: In 2017, the U.S. received 199,000 petitions, down from 336,107 in 2016. That’s a 40 percent drop, and the first time in five years the number of H-1B applications has dipped below 200,000.

One of the reasons for the waning interest in applying for U.S. jobs is the rhetoric bouncing around the country.

“The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay.” This was Donald J. Trump in 2016.

Trump’s blurring-of-lines position on a program that has sweeping importance in the tech world generated a whole ecosystem of disingenuous tweeters who began to advance a fake narrative.

There is no denying that the H-1B program lacks oversight. And because of the heightened awareness of H-1B misuse, we are beginning to attend to some of the loopholes in the system.

The USCIS is adopting a more targeted approach to their site visits, especially examining employers who have a high ratio of H-1B workers compared to U.S. workers, and employers who have a number of H-1B employees working off-site at other companies or locations. “Targeted site visits will allow us to focus resources where fraud and abuse of the H-1B program may be more likely to occur,” reads an April 3 memo from the USCIS.

These targeted site visits directly address IT outsourcing companies who sponsor a large volume of H-1B petitions. In 2016, USCIS approved 49,534 petitions from Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys Ltd. alone, two Indian outsourcing companies. It is likely that these two companies will merit a closer look.

In late February, the USCIS set up an email address — ReportH1BAbuse@uscis.dhs.gov — to receive fraud complaints and tips. The USCIS is also amplifying its scrutiny of each individual petition.

Sharon Rummery, the public affairs officer at the USCIS, emailed the latest information on the number of H-1B applications that generated a request for evidence (RFE). The last round of petitions had a record number of RFEs to determine H-1B eligibility. In 2016, there were 80,961 RFEs sent by USCIS. In 2017, that number increased to 124,237.

Considering the number of H-1B petitions dropped in 2017, it is clear the USCIS is making a concentrated effort to ensure that American companies are not displacing U.S. workers with the same skill sets as hired H-1B visa holders.

These are steps the current administration is taking to address abuse, but we cannot band-aid every loophole that exists. Congress does need to improve the program holistically.

In November 2017, a bipartisan bill — the Protect and Grow American Jobs Act — sponsored by Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., was approved by the House Judiciary Committee and is gaining traction in the House at the moment, though the bill is still a long way from becoming law.

Issa and Lofgren’s bill mostly focuses on changing H-1B dependency conditions for employers. An employer is H-1B dependent if more than 20 percent of its workforce has H-1B status. If the bill were to pass, H-1B-dependent employers would be called upon to submit recruitment reports summarizing steps taken to hire U.S. workers, including why the job was not offered to a citizen or green card holder who may have applied for the position. The bill also increases the minimum salary requirement from $60,000 to $90,000 a year, making positions more evenly competitive.

I do believe that bipartisan bills are needed to distill what’s right and what’s wrong with the H-1B program, even if they are unlikely to appease those have cottoned on to the “taking away our jobs” point of view. In the meantime, I predict we will continue to see a decline in the number of people applying for the coveted H-1B slots this year, too, as compared to previous years.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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